right to life of climate deniers, children in poverty, and future
taboo on today's biggest issues -- a critical
evaluation of the deleted and withdrawn 2012 text "Death penalty for
global warming deniers?"
February 2017, revised December 2019.
German: link. To print this page, copy-paste to Word
and delete the formatting.
Anthropogenic climate change will probably cause a billion premature
human deaths (10% of future global population). Many future victims are
alive now (children in developing
human-rights and social-justice perspective, the future human death
connection with climate change is today's most important and most
suppressed issue. Many of these deaths will
have been caused (often knowingly) by influential climate
deniers as they obstruct the inevitable global transition
In 2012, wanting to break the taboo and
attention to the unprecedented enormity of this problem, and aware that
a regular statement would be ignored, I published a
controversial argument: If the death
penalty were limited by
international agreement to people who cause a million deaths -- saving
all prisoners on all death rows everywhere -- some influential climate
deniers would become candidates. I also explained in some detail
why the death penalty is never justified. In fact, it
achieves anything, because any dangerous person can be rendered safe
by life prisonment -- regardless of how many deaths s/he has
caused or how many lives s/he is threatening.
Years later, both scientific research and
discussions about the climate crisis are still ignoring the fundamental
rights of two billion children in developing countries as if
they did not exist, or as if a white life were worth more than
many black lives (the response to my text suggesting a ratio of a
million to one). Humanity's deep-seated racism and
stubborn failure to address today's most important issue are pushing us
ever closer to the ultimate brink of self-destruction and extinction.
The climate deniers were absolutely right to assert their right to
life. Everyone has that right, including two billion children in
developing countries. The right to life can only be guaranteed if
carbon emissions are urgently and rapidly reduced worldwide. That
means telling the truth about climate change and acting accordingly.
Better late than never.
I'm just a soul whose intentions are good / Oh lord, please
don't let me be misunderstood
--Bennie Benjamin, Horace Ott, Sol Marcus, Nina Simone (1964)
For two billion children
in developing countries, the combination of climate change and poverty
poses a deadly threat. The way things are going, in coming decades the
lives of most of those
children will be cut short by effects of climate change such as
famines, floods, droughts, storms, deadly heat, disease,
conflicts, and/or migration. Readers who don't believe
that are urged to consult reputable
summaries of the scientific literature before proceeding, for
example: IPCC, Scientists' Warning, Extinction
The right to life of children is today's most important
issue, but hardly anyone is talking about it. The primary aim of the
present text, therefore, is to draw attention to that issue. That was
also the primary aim of the scandalous text that I published in 2012
with the spectacularly provocative title "Death penalty for global
warming deniers?". I wanted the deniers to wake up and start
considering the devastating consequences of their actions. In some
cases, I evidently succeeded.
My 2012 text was not originally about the death penalty. The original
text, which is lost (just as previous versions of the current text are
lost), was about the deadly future consequences of climate denial for
hundreds of millions (perhaps billions) of people. I added a discussion
about the death penalty later, to attract attention to the deadly
future consequences of climate denial, lest they be ignored, and to
wake people up to how unutterably evil climate denial is.
That was my aim, but on the whole I failed to achieve it -- at least so
far. The deadly future consequences of climate
denial are still being largely ignored, as if a billion people did
not exist or did not matter. Just to clarify the chain of cause and
effect: climate denial prevents climate action, which in turn
exacerbates and accelerates the impending global climate catastrophe.
It follows that preventing influential climate denial is a matter of
utmost and unprecedented urgency.
If you arrived at the present text by following a link labeled "Death
penalty", please be aware that you have just fallen for the same trick,
and accept my apologies. The words "death penalty"
were again intended to attract your attention to today's most important
issue. That issue is not the death penalty. The task of ending the
death penalty worldwide is of course an enormously important one. No
question about that. The point is that the task of mitigating global
climate change, to avoid at least some of the expected human
consequences, is even more important. Much more, if every person and
every death has the same value.
Anyway, I hope the trick worked this time. Time is running out. Please
read on. Please also think about how you might personally contribute to
global climate solutions, which is the main thing. Needless
everything you read here, and everything I wrote in 2012, is
my personal opinion. Like the deniers, I enjoy freedom of speech.
Upon discovering my text in the internet, various climate
deniers sent distorted interpretations to sensationalist media,
which consequently reported that I had "called
for" the death penalty for climate deniers. Those
relatively few who had actually read and understood my internet blog
that was not
My heading ended with a question mark -- not an explanation
mark. I had avoided words like "should" and "must". I had
addressed a series of
crucially important 21st-century global issues. I had formulated a
thesis and carefully considered arguments for and against (more). My
argument about climate denial was limited to a handful of the most
influential deniers on the reasonable assumption that they had caused a
future deaths each.
I had also clarified my total
opposition to the death penalty at three different points:
I have always been
opposed to the death penalty in all cases,
and I have always supported the clear and consistent stand of Amnesty
International on this issue. The death penalty is barbaric, racist,
expensive, and is often applied by mistake. Apparently,
it does not
even act as a deterrent to would-be murderers. Hopefully, the USA and
China will come to their senses soon.
Nothing could be clearer than that. I had also written:
mass murderers should not be executed, in my opinion. Consider the
politically motivated murder of 77 people in Norway in 2011. Of course
the murderer does not deserve to live, and there is not the slightest
doubt that he is guilty. But if the Norwegian government killed him,
that would just increase the number of dead to 78. It would not bring
the dead back to life. In fact, it would not achieve anything positive
at all. I respect the families and friends of the victims if they feel
differently about that. I am simply presenting what seems to me to be a
note that I am not directly suggesting that the threat of execution be
carried out. I am simply presenting a logical argument. I am neither a
politician nor a lawyer. I am just thinking aloud about an important
Please note also
that I am only talking about prevention of future
deaths - not punishment or revenge after the event.
What I had failed to clarify is this: Prevention of this kind can be
achieved by a jail sentence. Beyond that, the death penalty would
Amid the ensuing frenzy, impassioned climate deniers insisted publicly
that I wanted to
have them killed, which I obviously did not. Ridiculous or
not, my only choice in that situation was to delete and withdraw
the text and to apologize. In
retrospect, that was problematic. How can one apologize for
defending the right to life of a billion people? I could have tried to
explain that, but people were not listening.
I apologized not only because of the incensed
accusations of the deniers, but also because of the ambiguous response
from some of the smart, caring people whom I had expected to support
me. Evidently, the world was not yet ready for this kind of argument.
The idea that our carbon emissions could be threatening the lives of a
billion children was evidently inconceivable for many people. Perhaps
it still is.
To my surprise, someone found my deleted text in Google Cache and
it at a new
address. I hadn't realized that such an enormous cache existed, or if
it did, that it was publicly accessible. My attempt to have the new
version deleted was in
vain. That's how I
that "the internet never forgets". The sensational reactions that
followed in the media and climate denial blogs referred to
that had been withdrawn, deleted, republished without
authorization, and -- in spite of
that -- not carefully read. For those
reasons, the original text is not linked here. Instead, it is
linked (again, against my will) to my Wikipedia page.
One might conclude from this that I should let sleeping
dogs lie. But there are two good reasons for not doing that. First,
availability of the original text and the misunderstandings about
it give me no choice but to explain my original intention.
Second, the unprecedented human rights implications of climate
change are still not being addressed. What will it take to start that
What I wrote
First, I warned that climate
change will have fatal consequences for hundreds of millions of people.
That was obvious then and it continues to be obvious now (more).
The problem becomes more acute with every year of missed opportunities.
When in the future hundreds of millions of people are dying in
connection with climate change, the shocked survivors will be looking
back and asking "Why didn't we listen"? Why indeed. By then it will be
Continuing on the topic of anthropogenic premature death, I then
explained why the death penalty is
never justified. But getting rid of it is not easy. Many countries
around the world are still executing criminals, and preventing them
from doing so is one of today's great challenges. In spite of our
opposition to the death penalty, we Europeans happily collaborate with
countries in which the death penalty is still happening such as the
USA, China, or Japan.
Given that our main task as human rights
activists is to sustainably stop the killing by any reasonable
means, I proposed a new way to end the death penalty in practice, if
not in law: If
the death penalty were
restricted by international agreement to criminals whose actions had
a million deaths (incidentally saving all prisoners on all death rows
in all countries), some influential climate deniers would become
The most important point in my text was that
anthropogenic global warming will cause the premature deaths of
hundreds of millions or perhaps billions of people,
via complex but well-understood chains
of cause and effect. That was
obvious then to anyone who considered the IPCC predictions and their
consequences, and it is even more obvious now, but still hardly anyone
(including the IPCC itself) has the courage to talk about it. Those
few messages I received in late 2012 and early 2013 that addressed this
issue did so only to ridicule it.
there can be no doubt that the claim is true. It is obvious even
without reading my article
on the topic. I have read all
kinds of relevant academic literature and I am not aware of any
plausible counterargument. Of course climate deniers are constantly
denying any and all aspects of climate science, but to my knowledge
none of them has yet managed to invent a good reason why this specific
claim might be
incorrect. It is time to start talking about the future
victims of climate change and their inalienable human rights. Better
late than never!
Needless to say, my text was not perfect. It could have been
formulated in many different ways. My knowledge of relevant
literature in areas beyond my
expertise was superficial.
Sometimes I missed something, and
sometimes I made a mistake.
But one thing is for sure: Climate change will be
greatest tragedy in all of human history. Consequently, mitigating
climate change, by getting out of fossil
fuels as fast as possible, is the most important and urgent task
humanity has ever faced. Protecting the right to
and a reasonable quality of life, of children everywhere (but
especially in developing countries, because they are most vulnerable
and most threatened)
is task number one. By comparison, everything else is subsidiary. In
particular, any complaint of any kind about my 2012 text is trivial by
comparison to the ultimate challenge of defending the right to life of
a billion people.
climate deniers were absolutely right to assert their right to life.
They should be asserting the right to life of everyone, including two
billion children in developing countries. That right can only be
guaranteed if carbon emissions are urgently and rapidly reduced
worldwide, which means telling the truth about climate change.
Countless organizations in the world and their leaders and
representatives agree with the previous paragraph, but at the same time
are failing to reduce their own emissions, nor are they taking a
stand against fossil-fuel industries and the governments that tolerate
and support them. If you are a member of such an organization, please
think about what would be necessary to jolt your colleagues into
action, considering the enormous number of human deaths climate change
will cause. One possibility is to write a shocking text.
I made final changes to my blog in October 2012, there are several
important things that I did not know or could not anticipate:
uproar about my text was surprising
when you consider that I had made a proposal that most
people in the world, and even most people in liberal Western Europe,
would immediately agree with: to limit
the death penalty to people who cause enormous numbers of deaths. I
merely considered the
implications, asking which
people in the world might be candidates if the death penalty were
limited in this way.
it could be found in Google Cache after I deleted it.
it could then "go viral".
people on both sides of the debate could misuse it for their own
the global climate denial community had many years of experience in the
art of attacking climate researchers (more),
especially those with the
courage to publish uncomforable truths.
neither academics nor the media were very good at identifying and
ignoring climate deniers -- despite their training in critical thinking
were as shocked as I was by my conclusions. But it was my
intention to shock, in the hope that the world's most important
problems would at last be taken seriously. Wake up, world. Hopefully,
many people realized (perhaps for the first time) that
climate deniers read little further than the
title and missed much of the detail, including the irony of the closing
section. They then distorted my message, presenting me as a deeply evil
who wants to
"kill all deniers". Impatient,
journalists repeated the deniers'
exaggerations and false
accusations, again without
carefully reading my text.
climate denial is the most important social and political force behind
change will probably indirectly kill
hundreds of millions of people, if not billions, and
Following the denialist attacks, people expected me to defend
was reluctant to do so, because the lives of hundreds of
millions of children in developing countries are obviously more
important than my reputation. If I was going to defend
anything, it was the basic rights of an enormous number of
people. That is also what my self-righteous
critics should have done -- and should still be doing. My
respectful request to anyone who is still appalled by my original text
(or perhaps even believes that I am "evil") is this: Please find a way to direct public
attention to the basic rights of a billion children in developing
countries whose lives will be cut short by global warming. That
is today's most important issue, and it is still being ignored.
Toward the end of my text, I had proceeded to analyze,
question, contradict, and make fun of my own
argument. The ironic,
satirical flavor of my
conclusion suggested that the whole text was to be taken
with a grain of salt:
People will be
saying that Parncutt has finally lost it. But there is already enough
evidence on the table to allow me to make the following prediction: If
someone found this document in the year 2050 and published it, it would
find general support and admiration. People would say I was courageous
to write the truth, for a change. Who knows, perhaps the Pope would
even turn me into a saint. Presumably there will still be a Pope, and
maybe by then he will even have realised that condoms are not such a
Contrary to my strangely confident subtitle ("An objective
argument...a conservative conclusion"), my argument was
ambiguous. There was no clear conclusion -- let alone a
one. There were too many unresolved contradictions. The
purpose of the ambiguity was
pedagogical. I wanted people to open their
eyes, see the main issues, and start thinking
about them. So I threw in some irony to highlight the
tragic absurdity of causing future deaths with carbon emissions, or
taking people seriously who deny that connection.
My British-empire-style wit may have gone over the
heads of some German or American readers, for which I apologize.
Three astute colleagues (at three different times, in three different
countries: UK, Austria, Australia) independently noticed a similarity
between my text and the
"straight-faced satire" of A Modest
Proposal by Jonathan Swift (1729). That was news to me, but
interesting! Both Swift and I tried to
humanitarian goals by presenting a text that at first seemed anything
but humanitarian. Swift made fun of British
toward the Irish poor in the early 18th century by proposing that poor
children be sold
and eaten; I made fun of the shocking cruelty of ignorance-feigning
deniers by proposing they be tried and punished according
to their own criteria (knowing that many deniers support the death
penalty for the
most serious crimes). Like Swift, I repeatedly used
word "propose" to invite discussion; contrary to claims by deniers and
media, I never "called for" anything. Here is an example of Swift's
sincere-but-absurd "straight-faced" style:
flesh will be in season throughout the year, but more plentiful in
March, and a little before and after; for we are told by a grave
author, an eminent French physician, that fish being a prolifick dyet,
there are more children born in Roman Catholick countries about nine
months after Lent, than at any other season; therefore, reckoning a
year after Lent, the markets will be more glutted than usual, because
the number of Popish infants, is at least three to one in this kingdom,
and therefore it will have one other collateral advantage, by lessening
the number of Papists among us.
Back in the 18th
century, any member of the
British upper class who for the briefest moment thought Swift was
serious and objected to his obviously immoral "proposal" was confronted
with the already
deadly consequences of British policy toward the Irish: poverty
generally reduces life expectancy and causes premature
deaths. Similarly, anyone who in 2012/13 accused me of wanting to
deniers" was in the same breath ignoring the untold millions of
future premature deaths that influential climate denial is already
causing, not to mention the support of many deniers for the death
penalty (e.g. in the US Republican party). Climate change really will
cause hundreds of millions of future premature deaths, whereas
in my text (and
Swift's) were entirely fictitious.
final twist, both my text and
Swift's invited the reader to detest the author and instead sympathize
with others. In my case, readers had a choice. They could sympathize
with either a handful of anonymous, highly influential climate
deniers or hundreds of millions of anonymous, powerless
future climate change victims. In both cases, I was
presented as "evil"
and excluded from the discussion. Unlike me, Swift had the sense to
For another example of ambiguously satirical content,
following provocative statement from near the end of my text:
I don't want to be
a saint. I would just like my grandchildren and great grandchildren,
and the human race in general, to enjoy the world that I have enjoyed,
as much as I have enjoyed it. And to achieve that goal I think it is
justified for a few heads to roll. Does that make me crazy? I don't
think so. I am certainly far less crazy than those people today who are
in favor of the death penalty for everyday cases of murder, in my
The climate deniers should have congratulated me on this paragraph. It
sounds convincing, but -- like much climate denial -- it is blatantly
misleading. In fact, the death penalty never achieves anything. If it
is possible to prevent
many future deaths by silencing an influential climate denier, that can
be done simply by putting him or her in jail.
There is a double irony here. If anyone in this story is
"straight-faced satire", it is the deniers themselves. For decades, the
most creative minds in the international climate denial movement have
been producing varying degrees
with the intention of confusing
everyone so the fossil-fuel industry can continue its evil work. For
a wonderfully systematic list of variously hilarious climate
myths, follow this
If a group of people is saying and writing dangerous nonsense, it is
justified to write dangerous nonsense in return -- if only to wake
people up and drag them back in the direction of honesty. The strategy
works particularly well if people initially don't realise they are
being tricked. Consider the case of Alan Sokal, who
famously submitted a hoax article to an academic journal. To his
delight and amazement, the article was published. Subsequently,
academic journals in a certain tradition became more careful about what
they published. That was a great achievement.
The difference is that the academic tradition Sokal was attacking or
ridiculing was not endangering human lives. Postmodern cultural
theorists are unlikely to jump off 20th-story balconies to
demonstrate that the theory of gravity is a social construct. By
contrast, the tradition of climate denial is surely the
most dangerous tradition in the entire history of ideas, in terms
of the number of human
lives it will end prematurely.
The provocative ambiguity of my text was at least partly successful.
for the first time
that climate deniers are indirectly killing large numbers of
future people, and started
talking about it. Others publicly proclaimed
their total opposition to
the death penalty and their support for human rights. In
retrospect, that made the
defamation, and cyberbullying seem worthwhile. I realised later that
every self-righteous person
who presented me as "evil" was a small victory for human
rights, even if those people had misunderstood my central message. I do not
know whether my text caused long-term changes
of attitude to either climate change or the death penalty;
probably, there was a small but
significant positive effect.
One of the most influential philosophers in history, Socrates inspired
generations of philosophers with his insights into morality and ethics,
as recorded by his student Plato.
Socrates had a habit of pretending to be
ignorant about a given topic in order to expose ignorance
or inconsistencies in the arguments of others. But Socratic irony,
as this strategy is known, is not a good
way to make friends, and perhaps it is the real reason he was
sentenced to death in 399 BC. His trial and
death represent one of the most famous chapters in the shameful
history of the death penalty, another being the crucifixion of
Jesus Christ (of which more later). Socrates
was found guilty of corrupting young minds and questioning state
religion. Four centuries years later, Jesus was accused of blaphemy and
treason. I don't want to push the comparison too far -- but in early
2013, I was accused of similar things.
To be sure, I did not realise that I was engaging in Socratic irony
when I wrote my scandalous 2012 text. Incidentally, neither did
Socrates: the term had not yet been
invented. But the intention was similar. Both he and I knew we were
being ironic, and both he and I aimed to expose
inconsistencies in the arguments of others. In my text, I aimed to
expose the following forms of extreme hypocrisy:
deniers creatively deny anything and everything about anthropogenic
climate change. Their ultimate motivation is financial: their
income depends (usually indirectly) on burning fossil fuels. Their
motto: Be nice to fossil-fuel CEOs and their sidekicks, and you
will experience generous indirect benefits. Climate deniers
see their money as more important than the basic human rights of
enormous numbers of people. The human and
ethical consequences of this extraordinarily amoral (but shockingly
common) attitude are massive and unprecedented. To make matters worse,
many identify as religious (usually Christian).
knew these things when I wrote my text in 2012. Feeling powerless to
change them, I decided on a radical strategy. I would pretend
to favor the death penalty for influential climate deniers, based on a
logical argument. I would do that just after explaining in detail why
the death penalty is never
climate deniers advocate the death penalty for the most serious crimes,
without realising or acknowledging that they may themselves be
committing the most serious crime of all. When
you consider the number of lives that in the future will be prematurely
ended by today's
influential climate denial, we may be talking about the biggest
human-rights violation of all time.
The decision to incorporate this contradiction into my text
was conscious, but I was less aware of the
possible consequences. I only later realized that as an example of
Socratic irony my strategy might
trick people into the following three responses:
They would imply that one life (a single
influential climate denier) was more important than a million lives
(future climate change victims).
They would oppose the death penalty in this case, but approve of it
all of this actually happened.
They would fail to realise or admit that our
carbon emissions are
causing untold millions of future deaths.
The many people who accused me of being "evil" for mock-advocating the
death penalty for influential climate deniers fell into the first trap.
It was obvious from the first page of my original text that the
to protect the lives of untold millions of future climate-change
victims, but my critics argued as if those lives had no value or those
people did not exist. They were unwilling to acknowledge
the equal value of every human life and hence the equal importance of
preventing every premature human death, regardless of the cause. They
responded as if the lives of people in rich countries (or perhaps white
people) were much (perhaps a million times!) more important than the
lives of people in poor countries (or perhaps black people).
Many of my most raucous critics believed in the death penalty for
crimes. I know that because many US citizens fall into this category
(in particular Republicans). Many of those same people are climate
deniers. They opposed the death penalty in this case although from
a human-rights perspective the crime in question was clearly among the
is not too late for all three groups of people -- let's call them the
benign racists, the climate-denying death-penalty supporters, and the
shy, well-meaning intellectuals, for the want of better terms -- to
Of those critics who strongly opposed the death penalty in every
imaginable case, as I do, many refused to acknowledge the enormous
expected death toll from climate change, although this consequence has
been clear for decades. Every educated reader of good newspapers
knows that (i) humans depend on food and water supplies for survival,
(ii) food and water supplies depend on climate, (iii) climate is
changing globally due our emissions, (iv) food and water supplies are
already precarious in many
parts of the world -- even without climate
change, and (v) millions of people are already dying of hunger,
thirst, or preventable disease every year. Surely every educated
person has at some point realised this inevitably means our current
emissions are causing future deaths, and climate change will be
the biggest ever human tragedy? That is merely a logical
conclusion from well-known premises. Moreover, anyone who can see
through climate denial surely realizes that
influential climate deniers are today's biggest criminals because they
are contributing most to climate change by impeding progress toward
solutions. If most educated people indeed realize this, they must be
deliberately suppressing their conclusion. It's hard to explain their
It is not too late to acknowledge that every human life has the same
value. Consequently, every death that can be prevented has the same
priority. Given that today's carbon emissions are causing enormous
numbers of future premature deaths, everyone who believes in the
intrinsic equality of all humans has no choice but to drastically
reduce personal carbon
emissions and get actively involved in climate action.
It is not too late to clarify that the death penalty is never
justified, even in this extreme case. Given that our emissions are now
effectively putting untold
millions of young people on death row, especially in developing
countries, all those who totally oppose the death penalty (as I do)
must similarly drastically
reduce person emissions and get involved in climate action. Moreover,
all those who still support the death penalty would be advised to
consider their own interests.
are these changes going to happen? A life-and-death question for
a billion people is being ignored. What could be worse than that?
Discussions about climate change still tend to focus on physics,
economics, ecology, or politics. The problem is not only that climate
change is the elephant in the room. Within that elephant is
another elephant called human rights.
It is not too late to clarify that climate change is life-threatening
for a billlion people. Therefore, climate change is primarily a
human-rights issue. Everyone who is concerned about human rights must
drastically reduce personal carbon
emissions and get actively involved in climate action.
And here's the thing: as long as the above three groups of people are
still emitting CO2 at way above the sustainable level (roughly
one tonne per year) and are still not actively and visibly supporting
climate-friendly politics, it will be clear that they have not
understood. And as long as they have not understood, and given the
critical importance of climate feedback and tipping points (another
aspect that our fictitious educated person surely knows about),
humanity as we know it is more or less doomed.
Upon reading this, many people will feel criticized or offended. But
that is not my intention -- nor was it the intention of Socrates, when
he was being ironic. Socrates explored ways of approaching the honest
truth in dialogue with an opponent. In any case, like my original text,
the present text cannot
possibly be construed to refer to individuals. Instead I am
trying to formulate the truth about a crucially important issue, as
best I can, so that others will understand it and act on it.
It is clearly more important to defend the basic rights of a billion
people (a billion!) than to be nice to influential people in the
hope they will be nice in return. That was my attitude when I took
the risk of publishing the 2012 text, and it is still my attitude now.
Logically, it is the only attitude that is open to me if I
am to take human rights seriously. My reputation is important, but not
as important as the basic rights of a billion people. By comparison to
such an enormous issue, everything else is
Apart from that, I am
merely presenting what I consider to be facts and logical arguments, as
Socrates did. If we care about each other and the future, we had better
be start being open and honest about the human consequences of climate
change. Time is
To attract attention and ruffle feathers, I had chosen a deliberately
misleading title: "Death penalty for global warming deniers?"
People of diverse political colors and stripes pretended not to have
seen the question mark and responded as if it
had been an explanation mark. Perhaps many read no
further than the heading! We live and learn.
In choosing this wording, I had intuitively applied a
series of known techniques (more). The
heading was short, concise, and understandable out of context. It
started with powerful keywords, addressed important
current issues, asked a
question, excited curiosity, and both surprised
and frightened the reader. I
had taken a personal risk to attract
attention to a series of critically
important issues that were evidently being suppressed. How many deaths
will climate change cause, especially in developing countries? Who will
be held responsible? What will be the legal consequences? Today,
Extinction Rebellion is again
exploring radical, unconventional,
personal-risk-taking ways of
attracting attention to the world’s most serious problem.
Needless to say, I
belong to their strongest supporters.
Other headings may have been more appropriate, e.g."Try
influential climate deniers for crimes against humanity" or "One
influential climate denier can cause a million future premature
if I had written that, perhaps no-one would have noticed.
and logic of my 2012 text
My main intention was clear from
the first page. I wanted to defend the right to life of
those countless millions of people who will die prematurely as a result
of climate change. At the start of my text
(in the third paragraph,
after two short introductory paragraphs) I had written that
the earth's temperature rises on average by more than two degrees,
interactions between different consequences of global warming
(reduction in the area of arable land, unexpected crop failures,
extinction of diverse plant and animal species) combined with
increasing populations mean that hundreds of millions of people may die
from starvation or disease in future famines.
Soon after that came this passage:
without global warming (GW) (or ignoring the small amount that has
happened so far), a
billion people are living in poverty right now. Every five seconds a
child is dying of hunger (more).The
Nations and diverse NGOs are trying to solve this problem, and making
some progress. But political forces in the other direction are
stronger. The strongest of these political forces is GW denial.
millions of people may die from starvation or disease in future
famines. Moreover, an unknown number may die from wars over diminishing
In the public discussion that followed, hardly
anyone mentioned these passages, as if those people
in developing countries did not exist or did not matter. Right
across the political spectrum, people responded to my
text acted as if they had missed these central
It is deeply shocking that these arguments were ignored. I cannot
express the depth of the shock. Words literally fail me. These untold
millions of people
really exist, and they really will die prematurely as a result of our
Today, we are still
treating billions of human lives as unimportant by
comparison to the right of rich countries to burn as much fossil fuel
as we want. How much longer do we
have to wait for the right to life of two billion children in
developing countries to be taken seriously? Surely we are not going to
wait until it is too late? Australia was warned in 2008
would become more serious around 2020 but the warning was ignored. Is
that to be the fate of a billion innocent people?
this clear statement of aims, I then presented the following argument:
that the death penalty is
never warranted, neither in general nor in this specific case, the
consequence is that influential climate deniers should be
tried for crimes against humanity, and the most appropriate place to do
that is the International Criminal
Court. The ICC completely
rejected the death penalty long ago, for
the usual good reasons. The
ICC will not change its mind about that even if half the people in the
world still think
the the death
penalty is an appropriate punishment for the most serious crimes.
climate change will cause hundreds of millions of premature deaths
(which it surely will, more here)
IF climate change is primarily caused by influential climate deniers in
the sense that they have been preventing progress toward solutions for
decades, without which the problem would be much less severe now (more here)
IF the death penalty were limited by global agreement to people who
cause a million deaths, and as a result all current death sentences in
all countries were commuted to life imprisonment, a development that
would be euphorically celebrated by all anti-death-penalty activists
worldwide including myself;
a few of the most influential climate deniers would become death
If we don't try the influential climate deniers, they will continue to
prevent progress toward global climate solutions. They have been doing
that more or less continuously for decades, and they will continue to
do so unless prevented. By
not putting a stop to this deeply evil practice, we are effectively
sentencing hundreds of millions
of innocent people to premature death in the future as an indirect
consequence of climate
change caused by our emissions. We are forced by this dilemma to
make a choice: Either we defend
the rights of two billion children or we abandon them to a fate to
which we have contributed.
Most people are choosing the cowardly second option. The result
will certainly be hundreds of millions of avoidable deaths. By
comparison, the hypothetical
possibility of the death penalty for a handful of the most influential
climate deniers -- enormously shocking by itself -- is relatively
Every human life has the same value and (at the risk of stating the
obvious) the number one million is much, much bigger than the
The argument that I presented can be interpreted in other ways.
One approach is to analyze the logical
relationship between premises and conclusion. Consider the
Premise 1. About
half of the
people in the world still consider the death penalty to be justified
for the most serious crimes. We know this from surveys; the exact
proportion depends on how you ask the question. Changing their minds is
one of today's great challenges.
Premise 2. The
crimes are those in which one person knowingly causes enormous numbers
of deaths. This should be obvious from a human-rights perspective, in
which every life has the same value. One could also estimate the amount
of suffering or the number of (quality) life-years lost, but that would
not significantly change the present argument.
Premise 3. The
climate deniers are causing or have caused enormous numbers of future
deaths. Those deaths will occur, for example, as the future death toll
in connection with poverty in developing countries rises in response to
multiple side-effects of climate change. Deniers cause future deaths by
hindering projects that would otherwise slow climate change.
If all three premises are true, then for those people who (erroneously)
believe in the death penalty for the most serious crimes (premise 1),
"death penalty for influential climate deniers" is merely a
Needless to say, I am opposed to this conclusion, because I am opposed
to premise 1. In general, the conclusion can be changed if we
change any one of the three premises.
Changing premise 1 means convincing death penalty supporters that the
death penalty is never justified. The outraged public reaction
to my 2012 blog suggested that I made some progress in that direction.
many climate deniers realized that the death penalty is never
justified, after imagining being candidates themselves. Second, others
who normally never mention human rights suddenly started to talk about
I don’t believe premise 2 can be questioned. From a human rights
perspective, it is obviously correct, and I am not aware of any other
Nor do I believe premise 3 can be changed. The deniers will continue to
deny the causal connections, of course. Their behavior is complex and
resists a simple explanation. According to psychological
theory of moral development, some of them are immature
(selfish, dishonest, opportunist, irresponsible). Others may be
gullible or lacking in skills of critical
thinking. In any case, the law should expose and punish such
profound examples of irresponsibility, to protect the rights of others.
However hard they try, the deniers cannot change the logical
relationship between the above conclusion and premises, just as they
cannot change the laws of physics. Nor can they
blame me or anyone else for pointing this out. I did not
create this situation! I could cite literature to
that all elements of the argument that I presented in 2012 existed in
advance. I merely put
together the pieces of the jigsaw, and then found the rare courage to
the right to life of a billion people.
In the first few days after the discovery of my text, I
received a very diverse collection of emails. Several
people who had understood my message wrote supportively (see below for
a selection), but there were more negative responses, presumably because
encouraging each other to write to me on their denialist internet
pages. Some presented
familar denialist arguments ("the
world stopped warming about 16 years ago" ... "the earth's climate is
always changing"), while others proposed fantastic theories ("harmonics
found in music and the solar system"). Some responded to the irony of
my text ("I haven't
much in a while"), while others were sarcastic ("Did you forget your
medication?"). Quite a few sent tirades of abuse (not repeatable here).
More moderate denialist colleagues (often insisting
being called "skeptics") sent
interesting discussions and made claims with which I could
only agree. They wrote for example "I
fully believe in the precautionary principle. But there
has to be limits", or "Would love to see you try and prove my
responsibility for a future death in an open court of law", or "Science
MUST allow for honest debate, and so must society".
Many respondents were simply appalled. Of those, most made
it clear that they had neither read my text
carefully nor taken my arguments seriously ("I have not read
anywhere such a long piece of innate and
ignorant drivel"). They didn't realize, or refused to admit, that I was
about today's most important issue: the right to life of a billion
people. While it is certainly
justified to express horror at the
prospect of an influential climate denier or anyone else dying
prematurely, it is much, much more horrifying to ignore the right to
of a million people -- those would will die prematurely in the
future as a result of that denier's influence (according to my
definition of "influential"). My
appalled penfriends were tacitly assuming that the life of
an influential climate denier in a rich country is more important than
the lives of a million people in developing countries.
I was unprepared for the suddenness and ferocity of the international
denialist response. I had
previously published many political texts in the internet about some of
today's most important issues (examples are here)
and the public response had been almost zero. Later, I realized that
many climate deniers were experienced destroyers of the careers and
climate scientists who dared to tell the truth in public. Unlikely me,
those deniers were prepared for the political situation created by my
applied their finely honed skills to my case with a certain
The denialist reputation-destroying project got under way
was accused of a shopping list of things that I
never did. I should have expected that. I was
powerful deniers, and lying is what they do for a living -- on behalf
funded by, the rich fossil fuel industry. Besides, I can hardly
accuse the deniers of exaggerating when I did so myself.
I was introduced in a refreshingly practical way (we teachers
call it "learning by doing") to the
gentle arts of
blaming, all of which involve truth
distortion. In a globalized
electronic game of Chinese
whispers, in which quasi-randomly
selected deniers and boulevard media reporters were the players,
exaggerated interpretations of my text were re-exaggerated in a
self-reinforcing crescendo reminiscent of climate feedbacks. Deniers
reported on their
webpages that I wanted to kill them and
exhorted each other to send me their thoughts by email. The
public distortions of my message fooled many well-meaning,
well-informed people. The purpose of
the present text, incidentally, is not to restore my reputation. The
purpose is the same as the purpose of the original text, namely to
protect the right to life of a billion people.
The deniers and journalists repeatedly claimed that I had
"called for" the death penalty for climate deniers. I had done
thing. I had presented an argument, not a manifesto. My heading was a
question, not a statement. Rather than "calling
for" something, I had repeatedly used
the verb "propose". A "proposal" is an
invitation to discuss. This meaning was
correctly recognized by Austria Presse
was entitled "Uni-Professor stellt Todesstrafe zur Diskussion"
(university professor puts the death penalty up for discussion / raises
issues about the death penalty). A "call" or "demand" is a
different thing. A chef
who "proposes" a delicious dessert is not
demanding that customers eat it. An academic
who writes a "research proposal" is offering some interesting
claiming that they have potential -- not
a grant agency to fund the project.
repeatedly claimed that I wanted to "kill all deniers". In fact, I had
saving untold millions of lives by means of a legal procedure that was
confined to the most influential deniers and had zero chance of
leading to anything beyond fines,
jail sentences, and public embarrassment. The deniers knew
that, of course. They are not stupid. But they are also great actors,
and they jumped at the opportunity to demonstrate their skill at
playing the victim role.
My text included a link to "desmogblog". The intention
clarify the concepts "climate denial" and "climate denier" by providing
examples. That was necessary because the terms are used in different
ways. I often ask my students to define their teminology and give
examples. Incidentally, I have never had any kind
of contact of any kind with anyone involved in desmogblog -- neither
before nor after my 2012 text. I simply found their page in the
internet. Looking for another Achilles' heel, some climate
deniers deliberately misinterpreted my link to
desmogblog, claiming that it turned my text into a
"death threat". The people listed by
desmogblog, they claimed, were the designated victims, and I was the
perpetrator. Needless to say,
that was patently absurd -- typical denialist nonsense. But very
creative! My clearly
and repeatedly stated proposal was to limit the death penalty to
people who cause a million deaths. That idea can only apply to the
most influential climate deniers. At the most, only a handful of
by desmogblog could possibly fall into this category.
Moreover, there is a big difference between making a
"death threat" and discussing a possible legal procedure. In any case,
was only a link. Give me a
Having established my "evil" status, the deniers then
victoriously cited two or three poorly
formulated sentences from my text out
of context. That confirmed it. I truly was evil! Used to
as evil themselves, the deniers knew only too well what to do.
The deniers were confusing perpetrators with victims, as so often
happens in bullying and harassment. In fact, I was neither perpetrator
nor victim. As far as climate change
is concerned, the
perpetrators are influential climate deniers, and the
main victims will be a billion people in developing
these two points and their
implications were widely recognized, we would be moving faster toward a
solution. I was merely standing on the sidelines, trying to tell
the truth about
this unfolding 21st-century tragedy and thinking aloud about possible
the most serious distortion of the deniers was to
avoid the main issue -- the
deadly risk that climate change poses for billions of people.
the point was clear from my text, it was ignored as if those billions of people did not
exist. No denier considered it possible that hundreds of
millions of people will die prematurely as a result of our emissions,
noticed that this
problem is even bigger than the death penalty -- much bigger, because
numbers are so enormous.
wonder the deniers were upset. My
blog exposed their massive guilt.
Their attempts to make me look guilty and evil were designed to divert
attention from their own guilt and malice. Well, they can try as hard
as they like to ruin my reputation, but I am not about to give up
defending the fundamental rights of a billion people.
I wasn't the first to find myself in this situation, as I
discovered a few years later. A well-known climate denier
sent me a list of people who had suggested drastic legal responses to
denial. I was pleased to find myself in such eminent company.
Presumably, all listed people were mercilessly attacked by deniers in
their courage and honesty. The
statements were dated 2007, 2008, 2010 and 2012 (not
including my text). Some had argued that climate denial is a form
treason, for which the penalty in USA is still death (as if
Middle Ages had never ended). Others had argued that influential
denial is a crime against humanity, for which (in some interpretations,
but not that of the International Criminal Court) the penalty is death.
deniers' exaggerated, misleading interpretations were repeated by the
media and even by academic commentators, as if deniers were a reliable
source of information. Countless people
(often with good education and good intentions) took the hysterical
denialist claims and sensationalist media seriously -- without
carefully reading my original document. They even ignored my first
page, in which I had explained my
motivation. I was
surprised by the failure of many
to recognize the significance and urgency of my argument or to see
through the bluster and fake sincerity of the deniers. Some
understood the issues, but amid the chaos of ill-informed righteous
indignation were afraid to
say anything. A bit more courage and solidarity might have helped.
The media could have reported that
climate deniers have successfully prevented
progress toward global emissions reductions for decades, while being
fully informed of the consequences,
climate deniers are therefore
primarily responsible for the future premature
deaths of hundreds of millions of people, especially in developing
the media had done that,
people might have begun to
understand. If in addition the media
single influential climate denier can in this way indirectly
cause a million future premature deaths--an urgent but
the absence of a miracle, climate
change will indeed cause hundreds of millions of future premature
deaths -- possibly billions,
of the future victims are children
living right now in developing countries (they really exist, and they
really will die early for this reason), and
we might have made some progress toward a rational discussion, if not a
refusal to talk openly about this, the world's most serious
problem -- practically
staring us in the face -- is perhaps the most
serious form of denial that there is,
and makes us all co-responsible,
is a climate denier?
Like autism, climate denial is a
spectrum. There are many different kinds and degrees of climate denial.
But there is a difference. A relatively small proportion of people
find themselves on the autism spectrum, whereas a relatively large
on the climate denial spectrum.
Most people reading this text
are climate deniers in the weak sense of not doing anything significant
to reduce their personal carbon footprint or that of people in
their sphere of influence, or not supporting climate action on a
political level. I was a climate denier of that kind for a long time
and I have a
big lifespan carbon footprint. I was acting as if climate change was
happening, was not caused by humans, or was not an existential threat
to humanity. I was pretending not to know that the golden age of human
civilization is drawing to a close and things will probably get
incrementally worse on a global scale every decade for the next
century. I was refusing to admit that our present extravagance
and indifference is causing the future suffering of our own children.
The science was speaking but I was not listening. I was marching
in time as humanity sleepwalked toward
All of us are
guilty, to different extents. Climate denial is happening on many
different levels. Almost everyone is in denial about the human cost
of climate change -- the number of lives it will end prematurely.
Right now, we are involved
in the biggest mass killing in
history. We are
profiting daily from an unfair global economic system that is causing
some ten million people to die prematurely every year due to poverty.
our greenhouse-gas emissions are killing perhaps a further ten
million (order-of-magnitude estimate) future people every year (more).
Some people are climate deniers in the strong
publicly claiming that climate change is not happening, not caused by
humans, or not an existential threat. An even smaller number are influential
climate deniers who successfully promote the burning of fossil
prevent climate action from
happening, and thereby indirectly cause enormous suffering in the
future, especially in vulnerable tropical and developing
For decades, influential climate deniers have
been threatening the basic
rights of all people everywhere. Motivated by personal
financial gain, they have
been preventing progress toward climate solutions by suppressing
important scientific information, confusing the public, and hindering
progress at global
Given what we know about the main causes and effects of climate change,
a single influential climate denier could
indirectly kill a million future people. By "kill" I mean "cause death"
or "end lives prematurely". Thought
if the number was exactly one million? What if we knew them all by
name? According to universally accepted principles of human
rights, every one of those 1,000,001 people (including our climate
denier) would have the same inherent
value and the same inalienable rights. Not one of those people
would deserve to die
It is hard to exaggerate how bad influential climate denial
really is, or how evil
influential climate deniers really are. These are people who would risk
millions of people (and perhaps all of humanity) to protect their
short-term financial interests. Preferring misleading
terms like "skeptics" or "contrarians", deniers are
little more than professional
liars, motivated directly or indirectly by financial gain and often
handsomely financed by fossil fuel industries. From a
influential deniers are up there with the worst criminals of
all time. The basic rights of
current and future victims of
climate change, including their right to life, are obviously more
important than the deniers' right to freedom of speech. All of this has
been obvious for decades to anyone who regularly reads a good
newspaper. I thought
people knew that. They should at least have
realized it after reading my text. Alas.
Not surprisingly, given their stunning lack of morality, many
deniers are also death-penalty advocates. Many members or supporters of
Republican Party fall into both categories. That
interesting contradiction. How can one
support the death penalty for the most serious crimes, while at the
same time contributing oneself to the most serious crime of all
time? My strong recommendation to death-penalty-supporting climate
deniers and climate-denying death-penalty supporters is to consider
own interests and change your views on both topics.
the penny has not yet dropped, let me spell it out. Philosophers like
to make the following logical connection: if (i) all men are
mortal and (ii) Socrates is a man, therefore (iii) Socrates is
mortal. If you think (i) the death penalty is justified for the biggest
crimes, and (ii) you are committing one of the biggest crimes, (iii)
conclusion might we draw from that? And whose idea was that,
originally? It certainly wasn't mine. This contradiction has been out
there for decades.
might have happened
My text was a thought experiment. Many people think the death penalty
is justified for the world's most serious crimes. It is not. But what
would happen if that idea were applied carefully and
systematically? The world be a very different place. For one thing, the
lives of a billion children would not be threatened by climate change.
Here's another thought experiment. What would have happened if the many
people who self-righteously objected to my text actually cared about other people?
Let's say 200 people publicly claimed that I had “called
for” the death penalty for influential climate deniers.
half of them contributed to internet blogs and the other half wrote
emails. Imagine what would have happened if those 200 people had read
my statement -- not just the title (including the question mark), but
whole thing. What if they had thought about it and understood
what it was really about? Imagine those 200 light bulbs lighting up.
Those 200 pennies finally dropping.
Now imagine those 200 people apologizing for their previous postings or
emails and instead objecting publicly to the future premature deaths of
a billion people in developing countries. Imagine them explaining the
indirect contribution of influential climate deniers, but also of all
residents of richer countries, to those future deaths. Imagine those
200 people understanding how we, every day, take advantage of an unfair
global economic system, and on top of that emit too much greenhouse
gas, and how that makes us responsible for the present and future
avoidable death toll in developing countries.
If that is hard to imagine, let's instead try to imagine just ten of
those people objecting publicly to the mega-fatal future consequences
of climate denial. Still hard to imagine? Perhaps just one person? This
line of thought raises an interesting question: Does anyone at all care
enough about this to be honest about it? Does anyone have the courage
to break the ice? Or have we all secretly agreed in some kind of global
conspiracy to avoid talking publicly about our guilt?
From this brief analysis, and regarding my 2012 text as a kind of
social experiment, designed to find out who if anyone has seriously
considered these issues, we can now formulate our conclusions. Many
people consider the life of an influential climate denier to be roughly
a million times more important than the life of a person living in
poverty in a developing country whose life will be shortened as a
result of climate denial. A million times! We know this because many
participants in the public discussion of my text were evidently more
about the possible death of an influential climate denier than the
million deaths that that person apparently caused.
Now imagine asking those 200 people what they think of the following
claim: Every human life has the same value, regardless of skin color,
gender, wealth, age, religion, and so on. Presumably, they would all
agree. Of course, they would say, it's obvious.
Are we going to start talking about this? Or do we prefer to keep our
heads in the sand? An alien visitor from outer space would be
astonished at the difference between what humans say about morality and
what they actually do. A million to one! The hypocrisy is truly
My background and motivation
My statement did not appear out of thin air. Since
I became aware of the legal and ethical problems surrounding the death
penalty in the 1980s, I have opposed it unconditionally. Since the
have been a member of Amnesty International. During that time, I have
countless urgent actions and letter
writing campaigns to stop the death penalty in different countries --
both in specific cases
universally. Since 1999, my yearly donation to Amnesty has exceeded
€80. In recent years, Amnesty
has recognized climate change as
human rights issue. Amnesty is more
important today than ever. Please
From 2000 to 2010, I became
increasingly aware of a basic ethical
problem. What is more important to me personally --
the basic rights of billions of children in developing countries, or my
well-being? If I had a chance to promote their rights, but only by
risking my well-being, would I do it? Hopefully I am not the only one
asking that question.
Meanwhile, I co-organized a
series of projects
that brought together research and practice (NGOs,
education) in the area
of interculturalism and anti-racism and eventually inspired diverse
projects by numerous colleagues. My work included an
and a book. The aim
was to reduce racism and xenophobia by
applying insights and findings from research in contrasting academic
disciplines and collaborating with practitioners. I
was also interested in world hunger and child
mortality and the
astonishing tendency of rich countries to pretend this is not happening
or to underestimate the ethical consequences.
From these projects I learned that climate change is the
ever: it is mainly caused by whites and will probably cost a billion
black lives. The psychological
phenomenon of implicit
racism allows us rich white people to ignore the enormous
continuing death toll in developing countries in connection with hunger
and preventable disease and get on with our everyday lives (in
paradise, as Phil Collins sang).
Many people still haven’t clicked that Black Lives
Matter. The message may have reached their heads, but it is still
waiting for the journey into their hearts. As an example of how
important but difficult this journey is, consider the case
of Greta Thunberg, who in late 2018 and early 2019 pushed
global climate action forward like almost no one else before or since.
She did that by courageously telling truth to power. I am her
greatest fan. I cannot express how much gratitude I feel toward her and
all the other young leaders who have recently emerged in the struggle
for humanity's future. But even Greta's truth
was incomplete, because even she (for excusable practical reasons)
tends to ignore the main future victims of climate change, namely
I could only carry out my anti-racist projects in my
time. So I
decided to identify today's most
important issues on focus on
them (more). And here's what I realized:
human lives are the
foundation of our value system and every human life is equally
valuable, the problem of future premature mortality is even
serious than everyday racism. But premature mortality is itself about
because most of the victims are or will be black.
Between 2000 and 2010, I started to think about effective
am one of the lucky
ones with a steady income, a high standard of living, and a
good education. That gives me an implicit moral obligation to give back
to society and "do good"
for other people. For
many years I had been supporting organizations such as Amnesty
International, Greenpeace, and Doctors Without Borders. I was also
concerned with issues such as water supples, hygiene, and debt relief
in developing countries. I was
to wonder how to get the greatest positive effect from my charity
dollar and limited spare time.
The world has far too many big problems for one person to
address all of them, or even a small selection. Therefore, I thought,
effective approach might be to identify the world's most important
and focus on them. To do that, we need an objective way of evaluating
the importance of an enormous problem.
I favor an approach based on human rights, on the
assumption that every person has the same inherent value, and the value
of a person is our most important value. Of course, other animals and
other parts of the natural world are also enormously valuable. But
given that everything is interacting, perhaps the best way to
simultaneously promote the well-being of all living things, including
all animals (humans being an animal species), is to focus
attention on human issues. In a world dominated by humans, it is easier
to promote human well-being than any other kind of well-being, because
people are mainly motivated by self-interest; but in the long term, one
of the best ways to promote human well-being is to promote the
well-being of non-human animals and the natural environment.
On that basis, I started to wonder how the world's biggest problems can
be identified. An important candidate is hunger,
because it causes such an enormous amount of suffering. When I started
to look at global hunger carefully, I realized that it is a much bigger
problem than most people realize. In terms of premature deaths, it is
much worse than violence, even when all violent conflicts in the world
are considered. However, violence gets much more media attention. But
hunger itself may not be the main problem. The main cause of hunger
is poverty, which is causing altogether roughly 10 million
premature deaths per year. Poverty, I concluded, should be on the top
of every effective altruist's list -- especially given that it could be
alleviated relatively easily by repairing
unfair aspects of the global economic system.
That poverty is racist, is obvious. From a global perspective, the
number of poor people who count as "black" is much higher than the
number that count as "white". Conversely, the number of rich people who
count as "black" is much lower than the number that count as "white".
Poverty is also sexist, for similar reasons.
Another enormous cause of premature death is climate change. I estimate
that it is causing premature human deaths at about the same rate
as poverty -- about 10 million people per year (more).
The victims are not dying now, but in the future. The point about
racism and sexism applies equally to climate change. There is also
ageism: young people who are alive today will suffer much more
from climate change than older people alive today, although the older
people have made a much bigger contribution to emissions.
It is difficult to express how enormously shocking the human rights
implications of poverty and climate change are. In both cases, most of
us in rich countries are deep in denial, actively pushing the problem
out of our consciousness. Otherwise we could hardly live our lives --
or at least so it seems. But if more of us made more noise about these
problems, we would stand a better chance of constructively addressing
them. After that, the need to suppress these enormous problems in our
consciousness would be reduced, and we could be more honest with
An effective altruist asks what is causing a given problem, and then
tries to solve the problem by systematically addressing
the cause. In the case of climate change, the main cause is influential
climate denial. Much of the anticipated future death toll in connection
with climate change will be an indirect consequence of the influential
climate denial of recent decades. For decades, deniers have been
systematically impeding progress toward climate solutions. If there is
a single reason why almost no progress toward global emissions
reductions has been made since the 1990s, it is the lies and
misleading arguments spread by influential climate deniers.
The negative consequences of climate denial are so enormous that any
reasonable counterstrategy should be taken seriously.
Moreover, all of us who understand this problem (and that includes all
who take the time to read the present text carefully) have a clear
moral obligation to act. We cannot continue with business as usual,
pretending that we don't know.
In 2010, when I organized the anti-racist conference "cAIR10", I was
frustrated that anti-racist projects often seem to have no
all. They attract people who already know and care, while others
continue to look away. My colleagues and I were
"preaching to the converted". We often wondered together about how to
attract the attention of those we had not yet reached and get them to
start thinking about the issues.
Given this background, and in an attempt to be effective in
the sense of effective altruism, my scandalous 2012 statement was überspitzt,
like a pencil that
is too sharp. I was angry about, and
trying to attract attention to, three of the world's most important
Climate denial. Climate
deniers are causing millions of future deaths, but on the whole the
profession is ignoring the problem. In fact almost nobody is talking
as if billions of children did not exist.
Death penalty. Countries
with great and wonderful cultural traditions such as China, USA, Iran,
and Japan (and many others) are maintaining the death penalty for
no good reason. Their governments are failing to explain to their
people why the death penalty is
never justified and never achieves anything.
most people claim to be totally opposed to racism of any form, in
practice one white life is still treated as more valuable than a
large number of black lives. The reaction to my 2012 text
that the number may be as high as a million.
these points have in common is their connection to human rights.
They contradict two basic principles:
most important issue
value of a human life is the most important
value that we humans know. It is the basis of all human value.
human life has the same value.
Many people agree that climate change is
today's biggest issue, but if you ask why, you will get different
answers, for example:
are extremely serious issues. No question about that. But from a
human-rights perspective, none of them is the main reason. Climate
change is not only about
polar bears and coral reefs. Of course polar bears and coral reefs are
very important. Enormously important. But climate change is also threatening
the lives of
a billion people. It could kill
100 million people by 2030 and many
more in the long term (more).
will cause massive biodiversity loss. Rainforests and coral reefs
will be destroyed.
will ruin the quality of life of our children and grandchildren.
will cause wars and mass migration.
will mean the end of human civilisation.
rising CO2 concentration
of the earth's atmosphere, the laws of physics, the world's burgeoning
population, and the well-known
multiple consequences of global warming for humans -- all of that taken
-- will probably mean premature death for a billion people over the
next century. What happens after that is anybody's guess.
That is true even if global
emissions fall rapidly in coming years and warming is limited to
2°C. Beyond that, every additional degree Celcius could
(over a long period) kill an additional billion people.
The number one billion is a rough, order-of-magnitude
estimate. It can be broken down in various ways.
- Year: Hundreds
of millions will die in coming decades. Many of those are already alive
as children. Further hundreds of millions of future victims will be
born in coming decades and die later as a result of climate change.
- Age: Victims
will die at any age, but they will be predominately very young or very
old, because the very young and very old are more vulnerable.
- Location: Most deaths will happen in
climate-vulnerable developing countries such as Afghanistan,
Bangladesh, Barbados, Bhutan, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya,
Kiribati, Madagascar, Maldives, Nepal, Philippines, Rwanda, Saint
Lucia, Tanzania, Timor-Leste, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, and Vietnam; more.
But climate change will cause premature deaths of large numbers of
people in all countries, including the rich ones.
This will really happen. I am not exaggerating.
IPCC homepage and
read in detail about the modern world's most
important issue. Read the 2018
report about the difference between 1.5°C and 2°C of
warming. Ask yourself:
- Cause: The deaths will be
caused by climate change, but only indirectly. Direct causes of death
will include diverse side-effects of climate change such as rising
freak storms, changing precipitation patterns, disappearing glaciers
affecting water supplies, ocean acidification, more frequent bushfires,
loss of biodiversity and so on. The list is long. Many of
these side effects will reduce food supplies, causing famines.
- What will
happen in countries that
already have a hunger problem when population increases at the same
time as the food supply decreases?
will happen to hundreds of
millions of climate refugees, forced to move by water wars or rising
seas, when other countries refuse to accept them?
we don't start talking about this, the victims of our
cowardly silence will be our children and
grandchildren, after we die of old age -- still pretending to be
innocent. The question, then, is whether we care about our children and
grandchildren or not. If we care, we have some work to do. If we
do nothing, we evidently don't care.
will happen when
climate change indirectly causes old diseases to migrate or new
diseases to emerge from the melting permafrost?
Many still find these claims improbable, given that hardly anyone is
about it. But what else can happen when the well-known predictions
of the IPCC become reality? Some of
us believe in miracles or the power of prayer, but that is not a good
By "today's most important issue" I actually really
most important issue".
Nothing has ever been more important than preventing a
billion premature deaths
from happening. No negligence has ever been greater
than our persistent failure to address this problem, both individually
(reducing personal emissions by not flying, driving, eating meat and so
on) and collectively (dismantling fossil-fuel industries and reducing
the emissions of countries, industries, professions, academic
disciplines, age-groups and so on). Our unprecedented individual and
increases with every passing year that global emissions are not
Put another way. climate change is not primarily a question of physics,
chemistry, and biology. Nor is it primarily
a question of economics and the natural environment. Climate change is primarily a human rights issue. It
is a matter of life and
death for millions of people. It is in the first place a legal and
People will read these superlatives and think I am just
another guy in
the marketplace pretending to be the biggest, fastest, newest or
whatever. But for a change these superlatives are
appropriate. There really
has never been a more serious problem in the entire history of
humankind. There is a real chance that climate change will completely
wipe out humanity. Future premature deaths really are the
most serious aspect of climate change, and the topic really is being
The first step toward a solution is to start a discussion.
Getting that to happen was and continues to be an urgent priority.
The inherent value of
Human lives are the most valuable thing that we know. Every human life
has the same value. This is true regardless of anything else, including
cultural background, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability--even
guilt/innocence. It follows that matters of life and death are of
These points should be obvious. Almost everyone can agree
with them. The question then is how
to take them seriously and put them into practice. If we
actually do that, the implications are enormous.
The most important issue in climate change is not its effect on the
economy (profits, jobs and so on). It is not the effect on
irreplaceable ecosystems such as ancient forests or coral reefs. It is
not even the staggering number of animals, birds, insects and so on
that will die prematurely as a result -- comparable with the horrors of
the global meat industry. The global economy, the natural environment,
and non-human life are all enormously valuable, but they are not
valuable thing. The most important issue for us as humans is the number
of people who in the future will die prematurely as a result of climate
It is tempting to claim that the natural ecosystems of the earth are
just as valuable as humans, or even more so. From that viewpoint, it
would not be so bad if humans went extinct, if plenty of other species
survived. I know that many people are thinking this way, but I am not
one of them. Instead, I feel a deep allegiance to my own species.
Perhaps everyone involved in the struggle to save global
climate ultimately feels the same, at some level.
All of us humans (even the most
extreme "eco-warriors") have a deep and undeniable bias toward our
species. If confronted with a choice between saving a human and saving
a representative of another species, we will always choose the human.
We cannot reasonably claim, for example, that the Amazon rainforest is
more valuable than the people who live there, except insofar as all of
humanity depends on the Amazon rainforest.
For reasons of this kind, I
will focus on the value of human lives and assume that ecosystems
are also enormously valuable to the extent that we humans cannot live
without them. For that reason alone, the legal work on ecocide by Polly
Higgins and others is enormously valuable and should find its way into
every national legal system and indeed every constitution.
who find my human-centered approach arrogant or species-ist, please
accept my apologies. I am aware of the problem and respect your
viewpoint. In any case, I am not ignoring non-human life. Instead, I am
assuming that the value of non-human life is proportional to the value
of human life, and consequently that the human damage caused by climate
change will be proportional to the non-human damage. If that is
true, the consequences and implications are independent of the
distinction between human and non-human life.
The word "kill"
People get justifiably nervous when they read the word "kill". Let me
explain what I mean by it.
I mean the standard dictionary definition. l am using the word
"kill" in the everyday neutral sense of ending a life, regardless of
knowledge or intention. We can kill with or without knowledge of the
consequences. We can kill with or without malicious intent. In
all these cases, the word kill means to end life. No more and no less.
"Murder" is different: it is killing with intention. We are
not "murdering" future generations with our emissions. We don't want or
intend to kill anyone. Not even the worst climate deniers or
fossil-fuel CEOs want to kill anyone (at least not to my knowledge).
But our emissions are indeed causing the premature deaths of future
people, so the word "kill" is appropriate, and should be used
appropriately. We are killing future people with our emissions. That is
truth that hardly anyone has the courage to state.
Euphemisms can be problematic. If our emissions are causing
future deaths, it is not enough to refer to health
effects, as academic and governmental literature often does. Worse,
we should not follow the example of military or genocidal terminology
for killing such as "engaging", "liquidating", or "evacuating". If
people are being
killed, we should say that directly and honestly.
in the neutral sense, is the main issue, and it should be the main
thing that we talk about when we talk about climate change. If we want
the killing to stop, we have to think of effective and appropriate
strategies to stop it. If we talk merely about reducing emissions, for
whatever reason (such as preserving arctic ice, or future quality of
life in rich countries), all the time carefully avoiding any mention of
the main issue, we are unlikely to succeed.
traditional method of stopping killing, as applied for almost all
humanity's history and still considered appropriate by roughly half of
the human population, is to identify the people who are primarily
responsible, and kill them. In other words, the death
penalty, also called capital
punishment. That this method is contradictory, is obvious: you
a culture of killing by reinforcing it. You don't stop a culture of
anything by reinforcing it. Hypocrisy is not the answer.
People responded to my text as if no-one had mentioned the
death penalty for centuries. How could anyone bring up that idea again?
Good question. The death penalty is still possible or happening in a
very long list of countries. Where is the outcry about that? I
respectfully ask all those who objected to my text for any reason to
join me as a member and financial supporter of Amnesty International.
We are trying to end the death penalty in Afghanistan, Bahamas,
Bahrain, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belarus, Belize, Botswana, Chad,
China, Cuba, Congo, Dominica, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea,
Ethiopia, Guyana, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Japan, Jamaica, Jordan,
Kuwait, Lesotho, Libya, Nigeria, North Korea, Oman, Pakistan, Saudi
Arabia, Singapore, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Taiwan,
Thailand, Trinidad and Tobago, Uganda, United Arab Emirates, USA,
Vietnam, Yemen, and Zimbabwe.
2012 paper showed, there is no conceivable situation
in which the death penalty might be justified -- not even causing the
deaths of a million people. The wild discussion that followed the
discovery of my blog suggested that many people agree the death penalty
never justified. My paper may also have
helped many to make up their mind about that issue. Perhaps many
death-penalty-supporting climate deniers changed their mind. If so,
would have been big progress, even if they did not change their mind
There are many other questions to answer if we want to
stop people killing each other. How do we stop the international arms
trade? How do we close the international tax havens, which are known to
be important drivers of poverty in developing countries? How do we stop
the exploitation of developing countries by multinational corporations?
Of these issues, stopping the death penalty -- although enormously
important by itself -- is not the most important,
because the number of people who die prematurely in connection with the
death penalty (perhaps a few thousand every year) is much smaller than
other anthropogenic death rates -- people who die prematurely as
result of human actions. The number
of people being killed in violent
conflict is much higher. The number dying in connection with poverty is
higher still. Every year, about ten million people die prematurely in
connection with preventable poverty. This enormously shocking death
toll is as a consequence of human greed and the failure of governments
to fairly regulate the global economic system. In addition, human
greenhouse-gas emissions are killing about ten million future people
every year (more).
Altogether, human actions are effectively killing some 20
million people per year.
Bangladesh for example. The probability that a child in that country
will die in connection with climate change is now roughly 50%, by which
I mean much more than 10% and much less than 100% (more).
The probability that a prisoner on death row in any country
will be executed is also very roughly 50%, because sentences are often
changed to life imprisonment. Moreover, prisoners on death row often
wait many years for execution, whereas many people in Bangladesh are
now in the 2020s waiting for the day when they become climate refugees.
That means either risking their lives trying to move to another country
or risking starvation. The difference between the two cases is
Influential climate deniers have the same right to life as
a child in Bangladesh. But contrary to their wild claims
following the discovery of my text, and
unlike the children in Bangladesh, the deniers
are not in danger,
nor did my text pose the slightest danger to anyone. I was quite sure
of that when I wrote it. The reasons are obvious
and need not be repeated here. Moreover, the
death penalty is
traditionally used by the powerful to control the powerless. Influential death-penalty
candidates can save themselves by pulling
strings in the background. It is unfortunately not true that "everyone
is equal before the law".
Why oppose the
The death penalty is never justified and the reasons
One is that killing is justified only in
self-defense, to save one's life or the life of others from an
immediate threat. The death penalty is not self-defense; it is
legalized, premeditated killing.
The death penalty is not a solution to anything. It cannot
bring the dead back to life, nor can it prevent similar
tragedies in the future. You don't stop killing by
participating in it. This principle applies to the
punishment of all crimes, including the worst ever. Following the
Nuremberg trials in 1945-46, ten prominent Nazis were hanged, although
they could equally have been jailed for life. The death penalty
achieved nothing except to continue the cycle of killing that the
Nuremberg trials were supposed to stop. Surprisingly, this point is
Another reason to unconditionally reject the death penalty is
the inconsistency of arguments used by death-penalty fans. Many want
death penalty in response to the most
serious crimes, but the most serious crimes are not even
recognized as such, let alone punished. From a human-rights
perspective, the biggest crime of all is to cause the death
of an enormous number of people. That
frighteningly often, and my "scandalous" text offered
a series of examples. According to this criterion, the most influential
climate deniers are the worst criminals of all time, but in current law
they are not even considered guilty.
Some argue that the death penalty is needed as a deterrent, but
empirical evidence is equivocal. Careful statistical
analyses of relevant variables in different US states failed to find a
significant effect (more).
Murder often happens in anger; in the
moment, murderers may forget about the consequences. Moreover, potential
murderers are not necessarily more afraid of death than of life
imprisonment. These are well-known reasons for
ending the death penalty forever (more).
climate deniers are a different case. They may work deliberately and
carefully, and they may be well informed and have plenty of time to
consequences of their actions. But they are still unlikely to risk
either the death penalty or life imprisonment. The threat of
imprisonment would surely end their activities. Relative to
that, the death
penalty would achieve nothing.
The principle of proportionality in
criminal law holds that the
size of a punishment should reflect the size of the crime. That is the
idea that many people have in mind when they claim that the death
penalty is warranted for the "most serious" crimes. One
approach is to say that the seriousness of a crime
depends on the number
of deaths caused. On that basis, some legal
still proposing the death penalty as punishment
for genocide (more).
Others claim that the perpetrator
the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, Timothy McVeigh, "deserved" the death
penalty because of the large number of people killed (168).
But the principle of proportionality is
regularly ignored. As I showed in my
scandalous 2012 text, a surprisingly large number of people knowingly
but indirectly cause enormous numbers of
deaths. Those people are never prosecuted. Others are executed for
crimes such as murder (of one person), drug trafficking, rape,
blasphemy, treason, and
so on. If the death penalty cannot being
applied proportionally, it
should not be applied at all.
The idea of
limiting the death penalty to people who cause a
million deaths was based on the
value of every
human life, combined with the principle of proportionality. You can
measure the size
of a crime by estimating the number of lives that it ended prematurely.
to this criterion, influential climate
denial is one of the few most serious crimes of all time. This
realization has very serious consequences for those many people who are
influential climate deniers and supporters of the death penalty. They
have a choice: either stop denying climate change or stop supporting
the death penalty. I warmly recommend doing both.
Legal climate mitigation
Many climate-based law suits have been brought before the courts in
different countries. Success has been mixed.
A possible solution might be to focus on the most important problem
from a human-rights perspective: the deadly future consequences of
climate change. But the law still seems
unable to enforce natural law
and defend natural
rights, according to which every
natural person has the same
basic rights, of which the most
important is the right
to life. It is
law to go to court in one
country and defend the right to life of a billion
children in other countries. Altruism is not recognized.
Here's a possible angle: Every legal system in the world formally
prohibits killing, in the
sense of one human causing the death of another. If we want to prevent
climate denial, that is a great start. But there is a lot of work
to do. Different kinds of legal reform may be necessary.
our values are based on the value of human lives, preventing killing is
the most important goal of law. Therefore, the law must identify
people who are doing the most killing today, that is, those who are
responsible for the largest numbers of premature human deaths, and
prevent them from doing that. Today, those people, as I explained in
detail in my 2012 text (and the arguments were basically correct), are
the most influential climate deniers. We need to clarify
that climate change is
primarily about the right to life of today's children and future
generations. To legally defend that right, we must identify and
prosecute those who are causing the greatest numbers of future deaths.
One way to
clarify that killing is never ok is to end the death penalty
universally. The leaders of China and the US could together
decide to do that tomorrow, if they wanted. After that, most other
countries that still have the death penalty would be under pressure to
The death penalty achieves nothing. But other forms of punishment
can achieve a lot. It is certainly
appropriate to restrict the freedom of people whose actions are causing
millions of future deaths. And nothing could be more important that
actually doing that. If we don't, our grandchildren may
the ultimate price for our negligence.
From a scientific viewpoint, there is no doubt that
deniers are indirectly causing
millions of premature deaths in the future. That could
be demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt in a court of law by inviting
expert witnesses to provide opinion and evidence within their area of
expertise. But until now, convictions of
murder or manslaughter have only been possible if
justice demands that these traditional restrictions be changed.
That would have important and possibly far-reaching implications for
theories of justice,
including natural law, social contract, utilitarianism,
consequentialism, distributive justice, property rights, and
direct causal connection
could be demonstrated between the action and the death,
dead were individually identified, and
conviction occurred after the deaths had happened.
Even after such a reform it would still be hard for a judge to accuse a
climate denier of causing a million future deaths, even if relevant
experts agreed about that. Attribution
difficult. There are many uncertainties surrounding the future of
global climate, the (social/political) causal connection between
climate denial and emissions, and the (physical) causal connection
between emissions and climate change. I am no expert, but it seems that
quantitative arguments based on risk assessment
theory have little precedent in law. We had better change that before
it is too late.
More generally, the law is supposed to regulate behavior. In an age of
climate change, new, dangerous behaviors have emerged that urgently
need to be regulated. So far, the law has failed to meet this
challenge. According to Wikipedia, "In his Treatise on Law, Aquinas
argues that law is a rational ordering of things which concern the
common good that is promulgated by whoever is charged with the care of
the community." The implications of this statement for climate denial
are obvious, but the legal profession is still essentially
silent. Like almost everyone else, legal scholars may be in denial
the existential consequences of climate change. I may be wrong -- I am
not a lawyer or legal scholar, so I don't know the detail and I'm not
involved in relevant discussions.
Astonishingly, lying is
not generally illegal. Liars are held to be exercising their freedom
which in the US is upheld by the first amendment to the constitution.
The situation in Europe is only slightly better. Thus,
influential climate deniers are often considered
legally innocent. They have a right to disagree with the scientific
consensus, regardless of the consequences.
Lying is only illegal in certain special cases. In the USA, it is
illegal to impersonate
or lie to a federal agent, make a false claim, or swear a false oath
(perjury). Various kinds of fraud are illegal including health care and
mail. Libel and slander are also illegal. The supreme court explained
that these exceptions involve knowing
or reckless falsehood. But surely that applies also to climate
It is common sense that the right
to life is more important than freedom of speech. Moreover, rights can
only be exercised insofar as they don't infringe other, more important
rights. If "everyone is equal
before the law", every
human life has the same value. A million lives are a million
times more valuable than one life. Infringements
of basic rights that involve larger numbers of people
(here, millions or billions) are obviously much more important than
smaller numbers, everyone being equal before the law.
Therefore, influential climate denial should belong to the worst
According to the principle of proportionality, it should attract the
most severe punishments.
If Holocaust denial
can be made
illegal, so can climate denial. A legal
foundation to protect the rights
of children in developing countries already exists, namely the
Declaration of Human Rights. It is widely respected and
implemented in many
different ways in many national legal systems.
overriding importance of these
issues, you would expect to see a public discussion. The
profession should be addressing the issues now, while we still have
time to achieve some kind of justice.
By "justice" I do not mean revenge, which achieves nothing,
but a reduction in the magnitude of the future humanitarian catastophe
in connection with climate change. Guaranteeing
the right to
have the highest priority.
The normal instrument
for protecting human rights is international law. Insofar as
climate deniers are aware of the mega-fatal consequences of their
actions (and they cannot plausibly argue otherwise), they are
committing a crime
humanity. Insofar as that claim is obvious and
uncontroversial, they should tried by the International Criminal
Court. If influential
climate deniers cannot be held responsible
for crimes against humanity (and the
legal profession has so far made little progress in that direction),
then it is hard to imagine how the basic rights of a billion people
can be protected. In that case, the law will have failed spectacularly.
The crime of knowingly causing future deaths by failing
to reduce emissions may also be compared with "criminally
negligent manslaughter", defined as "homicide resulting from the taking
of an unreasonable and high degree of risk" (more).
Influential climate deniers have been committing this crime for decades
with impunity, as if a billion future victims did not exist.
Climate change versus
The death penalty is an enormous problem. Ending it
internationally has always been urgent. But from from a human-rights
perspective, climate change is even bigger. Much bigger.
Consider the numbers. Because they are so approximate, I will
express them as orders of magnitude.
death penalty is a matter of
life and death for thousands
of people. They are
waiting right now on death row in a shockingly long list of
death penalty is never justified and should be stopped universally. It
is equally obvious that emitting large amounts of CO2 in an
age of global
never justified and should be stopped universally. About a half of
every tonne of CO2
that is emitted today stays in the atmosphere for over a century and
contributes to the future climate death toll (the other half being
absorbed by plant life on land and in the oceans). Whereas the death
is an enormous problem, climate change is much bigger.
change is a
matter of life and death for hundreds
of millions of people, perhaps billions.
They will also
prematurely, in a shockingly long list of countries.
People were surprised to see climate change compared with the death
penalty in my text. But the comparison is valid and important. Both are
life and death for large numbers of
cases, the death of one group of human beings is caused by another
human begins. The
main difference is one of intention: we do not intend to kill anyone
our carbon emissions. We are doing so nevertheless, and we know it. But
not talking about it, pretending to be innocent.
I understand that this comparison is shocking and many people don't
like it. If you are one of those people, I have
a special request. Please find another way of directing attention to
the basic rights of two billion children currently living in developing
countries, in such
a way that they might finally be respected, which can only be done by
drastically reducing global emissions. Start talking publicly about the
right to life of two billion children, or find a way of starting
that public discussion.
My text implied two links between climate change and the
death penalty without stating them directly:
climate deniers are death penalty supporters. They want the death
penalty for the biggest crimes,
which they themselves may be committing. As Walter Scott once
commented, "Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practise to
totally oppose the death penalty and always have. But here’s the
thing: if the world agreed to limit
penalty to people who cause a million deaths, as I proposed in
2012, two big problems would be solved. First,
all criminals currently on death row in all countries would have
their sentences commuted. Second, the International Criminal Court
would try the most influential climate deniers; as always in the
ICC, punishment would be limited to life imprisonment. If
that project was successful, we might celebrate two
victories at once: the end of the death penalty and the end of
influential climate denial. Denial would go underground.
Projects to limit global emissions would finally have a chance.
of countries that have completely ended the death penalty have
something to be proud of. But there's a catch. We are still emitting
enormous quantities of CO2. Our
condemning millions of future people to premature death.
In that case, and assuming that climate denial is the biggest hurdle
standing in the way of climate action (and has been for decades), the
threat of human extinction would become much smaller. We
would finally be on the way to getting climate change under control.
Better late than never.
In short, a strategy for allowing humanity to survive with a
reasonable quality of life might look like this:
all, the following points are surely beyond question:
globally to a revision of the universal declaration of human rights.
Things have changed since 1948 and many revisions have been proposed. I
propose clarifying that the value of a person, defined as a conscious
social actor, is the most important value (or another formulation that
is neutral with respect to abortion and assisted dying). Moreover, all
that basis, start a new drive to end
the death penalty completely worldwide.
influential deniers for crimes against humanity and jail
not too late to start addressing these issues legally, but it soon will
be. We don't have much time.
value of a human life is our most important value.
climate change is mainly caused by humans.
people are contributing much more to the problem than others.
change will cause hundreds of millions of premature deaths -- perhaps
most influential climate deniers know that their actions are causing
enormous amounts of future death and suffering.
Climate death row
What does the death penalty have to do with climate change? A
lot, as it turns out. Every
person whose future life is
threatened by climate change is effectively on
death row. Climate change will kill them in the future with a certain
probability. Until then, they are waiting, not knowing whether climate
change will kill them or not. This
applies in particular to two billion innocent children in developing
Unlike the influential climate deniers in my fictitious
death-penalty scenario, whose lives are not in the slightest danger,
those children really will die prematurely. Our
emissions really are killing them. Where is the outcry about that?
In this way, the death penalty and climate change are related
political and moral issues. If we are genuine about our intention
to promote universal
human rights, we should dare to compare. If we want to end the death
penalty everywhere, it is even more important to rescue a billion
from climate death row.
Climate death (that is, death from hunger, disease, direct
heat, violence, or another negative
consequence of climate change) is similar to the death
penalty in several ways:
- In both
cases, the death is anthropogenic
(caused by humans).
cases involve probability. The uncertainty of the
death penalty is a cruel
death row typically
wait for ten
after which some survive and some don't. Similarly, people in
climate-vulnerable countries such as Bangladesh
will wait for one or more decades
for the day
when they become climate refugees, not knowing where if anywhere they
will live in future, or if they will survive the journey.
People are not very clear about these issues. The
public response to my 2012 text suggested that the average person
considers the death penalty to be a more serious problem than either
poverty or climate change. The public discussion
focused on the death penalty, although I had written at length
about all three issues, starting with poverty and climate change.
suffering that precedes death is comparable. In the case of
the death penalty, the suffering may involve firing squad, hanging,
injection, or electric chair. If climate change combined with poverty
is the cause of death, the suffering involves hunger, disease,
heat stress, or violence. I'm not sure which I would prefer.
For those of us who consider every human life to be equally
valuable, poverty and climate change are more serious issues than
the death penalty. In order-of-magnitude estimates, over
the coming century perhaps 100,000 people will die prematurely as a
result of the death penalty (currently perhaps 1000 per year in China
alone). That is profoundly and
incomprehensibly shocking, but the human cost of poverty and climate
change is much more so. During the same period, perhaps a billion
people (10m/year) will die prematurely in connection with poverty, even
in the absence of
climate change. Perhaps a further billion will die prematurely as a
result of climate change. That makes the global human cost of poverty
and climate change
10,000 times bigger than the global human cost of the death penalty!
But there is a further important distinction. The death penalty is a
than poverty or climate change because of the premeditated intention to
kill. Climate change will be a bigger tragedy
due to the much larger death toll. Those who are contributing most to
poverty and climate change (including climate deniers
and fossil-fuel CEOs) do not intend to kill
anyone. Instead, they are being negligent. They
are fully informed of the
deadly consequences of their actions, and proceeding anyway.
Climate change will also cause
an enormous number of species to go extinct. Those animals and plants
are also on death row.
There is a real danger
that Homo sapiens will join
them, making climate change a death sentence for humanity. In
an ever-so-slightly less horrific scenario, people with more
money will survive with greater probability, although their quality of
life will be essentially destroyed and they will have only themselves
to blame. Again,
that can only mean one thing: cut all emissions urgently.
The main point of this discussion is to protect the right to
life of billions of children. To do that, we have to prevent the
actions that are threatening them by attracting attention to the
problem and presenting
No country has contributed more to global warming than the US. The US
has also led the world in climate denial, although recently Australia
has been catching up.
Noam Chomsky has
described as the US Republican party as the world's
most dangerous organisation, mainly
because of its contribution to global climate change. But his
claim would be true even if we considered only US militarism. US forces
have bombed 24 countries since
is a map), killing untold millions of civilians, and pushed
mainly (not only) by Republicans in the background. If you are looking
for an example of the most sinister and hypocritical modern
here it is.
Roughly every second US-American is a death penalty
In 2012, roughly the same proportion were climate deniers (depending on
definition); the proportion has fallen since then, but is still
shockingly high. Probably much the same applies to the whole world. It
follows that many of my numerous critics were death penalty
supporters themselves, falling somewhat embarrassingly into the
additional trap of hypocrisy. These commentators deliberately ignored
the paragraph where I explained
in detail why the death penalty is never justified. Instead,
scandalized my thought experiment about the death penalty for one
climate denier, as if that were more important than
the premature deaths of a million people due to
death penalty is racist, at least in the USA, because the proportion of
black victims is greater than the proportion of black people in
the general population. My statement was also
about racism. The climate denier in my fictional scenario was
presumably white; the
victims were presumably black. If you wanted indirect confirmation that
sexism, is almost everywhere in the hidden assumptions of people of all
political persuations, the public discussion that followed the
discovery of my text was a startling new piece of evidence (more).
For some people, it seems, one white life is more valuable than a
million black lives. A million!
The question I asked in my scandalous text could be rephrased like
this: Are influential climate
deniers death-penalty candidates according to the logic of 100
million American death-penalty supporters? I implied this
question for two reasons:
first, to expose an inherent flaw in the arguments of those people
(and many other
people all over the world), and second
(and more importantly) to protect the right to life of two billion
in developing countries.
Those Republicans who claim to be Christian should get out
their Bibles and
read what Jesus said and did. Read about humility,
and caring for other people, especially those who suffer from poverty,
illness, or discrimination. Read about telling the truth and exposing
hypocrisy. Read about living simply and eschewing luxury. Read about
forgiveness, turning the other cheek, and pacifism. Jesus probably had olive-colored
skin and was himself a victim of the death penalty.
Poverty and climate change
The most common cause of premature death in coming decades and
centuries will be a combination of two main factors: climate change and
poverty. People with money will probably be able to adapt. Others will
not, with often fatal consequences.
Today, about 10 million people are dying prematurely each
they are living in poverty. Without poverty, they would not die early.
This number has been steadily decreasing in recent decades due to
economic growth and international development projects. It is now
presumably as small as it will ever get. The rate of premature
mortality in connection with poverty will increase steadily from now
on, for at least the next century, due to climate change.
Every day, over 10,000 children die in poverty in developing
They usually die of hunger or disease, but the ultimate cause is an
global economic system. Every single death is a
tragedy. It puts things in perspective to get up in the
morning and think of those 10,000 children who will die today. How do
their 10,000 mothers and 10,000 fathers feel about that? How do we, the
readers of this text, feel
This is happening for two reasons.
are ignoring it. The media are constantly full of disasters
that involve many deaths, but the disaster with by far the most deaths
is not mentioned. The problem
could be addressed if it was an election issue in rich countries, but
it boils down to basic childhood skills: honesty
and sharing. We adults are supposed to teach these skills to our
children, but since the rise of "Fridays for Future", our children our
trying to teach them to us.
global economic system is spiraling out of control. Most of the
is in the hands of a small super-rich
minority (including 2000 billionaires). The imbalance is undermining
democracy and it's getting worse. If we are concerned about anything,
we are more concerned about that.
Global poverty is a problem that can and could be
solved. The United Nations and many other organizations are working
hard on it (more).
But as long as we elect politicians that allow tax havens to exist
and corporations to have more power than governments (more), the forces preventing
progress will be bigger than the forces promoting it.
Climate change is
another problem that can and could be solved, and many organizations
are working hard on it, but politicians, corporations, the global rich,
and widespread apathy are standing in the way. Again,
and sharing are lacking.
The current global death
rate in connection with poverty will
double toward the end of the century due to climate change. It
to see what else could happen, given the number and diversity of
disastrous predictions in mainstream peer-reviewed scientific journals.
If this assumption is correct, our current
are killing 10,000 additional
future children every day. In fact, today's greenhouse emissions are
probably killing many more future people than that -- perhaps 10
million per year (more). I am
using the word “kill” in the neutral sense of
“causing death”, regardless of intention.
In other words: our dishonesty, negligence, and indifference
are killing 20 million people per year. Of those, 10 million per year
are dying now as a consequence of preventable poverty, and 10 million
will die in the future as a consequence of preventable climate change
combined with preventable poverty. The sum of these two
contributions exceeds the death rate due to violence during the
Second World War.
For those of us who regard human lives as our greatest good
life as equally valuable, this is the world's biggest problem. But it
is carefully suppressed,
even by those with a "global outlook". On the whole, not even the
"greenies" are talking about the future death toll from climate change.
What can we do about that? One option is to attract attention to the
basic rights of vulnerable people
and how they are being trashed by the global
rich, the political right, and the climate deniers. Today, anyone can
write a text on that topic, put it in the internet, and send it to
social media. Anyone can write about the hypocrisy of a global economic
system that likes to talk about human rights and carefully
protects the rights of the rich while at the same time quietly ignoring
massive rights violations. Anyone can write about the mega-deadly
consequences of our greed and indifference.
and ethical issues
My statement was related to the trolley problem
in ethics. Is it ok to kill one person to save the lives of five
people? If a runaway trolley (train carriage) is about to run over and
kill five innocent people, is it ok to divert the train onto another
track, where it will run over and kill only one, or is it ok to push
one person onto the track in front of the trolley, sacrificing one life
to save five? The disagreement about
these questions suggests that killing someone is
about five times worse that failing to take reasonable action to
prevent someone's death.
The trolley problem was implied when I wrote
I wish to claim
that it is generally ok to kill someone in order to
save one million people.
This sentence, as formulated, is obviously
true, because the number
one million is so much bigger than the number five. When it
comes to defending the right to life of a million
people we have to remember that every single person
has the same
inherent dignity and the same right to live. Multiply that by a million
and you have an enormous problem. But even that
doesn't justify the death penalty for mass murderers, because the
death penalty is never justified (for the usual reasons). A prisoner
can reliably be prevented from causing any (further)
harm simply by keeping him or her in prison. No further action is
That brings us to more general philosophical issues. What is good and
bad behavior? How can we lead a good life? Is a person who denies
climate change despite the massive human consequences "evil"? Or is a
person who tries to prevent a climate denier from preventing climate
Climate change has changed the way we approach ethical
questions. As the climate crisis deepens, 21st-century ethics will
increasingly be based on statements of the following kind:
human life has inestimable value.
value of a human life is the universal foundation of human value
living member of human society has essentially the same value
regardless of gender, cultural background, material possessions,
socio-economic status, skin color, physical/psychological condition, or
guilt/innocence. Children may have more value than adults because they
have more life-years to lose if they die.
- We evaluate
ecosystems in terms of their value for humanity, now and in the future.
Because we depend on ecosystems for our survival, their value is
enormous -- comparable with the value of very large numbers of people.
the size of a tragedy in which many people die corresponds
approximately to the number of deaths.
time, effort and money that we put into preventing a future tragedy
should be proportional to the risk. Risk is a product of damage
and probability. The probability of climate change causing the
premature deaths of a billion people (over a period of a century or
more) is now approaching 100%. Therefore, climate change is the biggest
challenge humanity has ever faced.
we should be putting a large proportion of our available time, effort
and money into mitigating global climate change (comparable with trying
to win a war). As part of that effort, we should be legally
protecting the human rights of billions of vulnerable people by
effectively and permanently ending the activities of the most
influential climate deniers. That in turn involves prosecution and
change and human rights
has always been a matter of life and death, in certain situations. Wars
often start with publicly proclaimed lies or logical fallacies (e.g.,
"You are threatening to attack me, therefore I will attack you first"). From
this we learn that honesty
can be a matter of life and death for millions of people. Today,
honesty has become a matter of human survival or extinction. Therefore,
the law should enforce honesty in cases where dishonesty has serious
consequences. Climate denial is the most serious such case.
change is today's
biggest human rights issue, because
it will seriously affect
or kill more people than any other category of human-rights violation.
The converse is also true: human rights are the most
important climate-change issue.
You wouldn't know that from the public discourse about climate change,
which often focuses on
money. How much will it cost to reduce emissions? How many jobs will be
lost? How much will climate change cost us in the future? What about
Discourse about human rights
similarly avoids climate change. Often, it focuses on individuals.
Of course it is essential
to apply international pressure to free prisoners of conscience and
commute death sentences, again and again, for as long as it takes.
That's what we do in Amnesty
International. But it is also necessary, and
even more important due to the enormous numbers of affected
people, to consider the basic
rights of unidentified climate change
victims. As Amnesty emphasizes, every
person has the same inherent value, independent of skin
color, gender, age, public profile, legal record and so on.
say, this principle applies to influential climate deniers in the same
way as it applies to millions of peasant farmers in Bangladesh whose
livelihood is threatened by rising sea levels, to give one of many
In the rich countries, we are living our lives as if this is not
happening. We are in denial about both poverty and climate. The
good news is that the preventable child mortality rate has
been falling, slowly but surely, for decades. The bad news is
climate change will make it
increase again and could double
by the end of the century. This approximate prediction follows directly
knowledge about physical, social and political aspects of the
situation. But almost everyone is ignoring the future death toll in
connection with climate change. Instead we are talking about other
climate change -- or avoiding the topic altogether.
Just because the future death rate is hard to predict doesn't
mean we should ignore it!
Climate change is also racist, affecting
people more than white, although being caused by white people
more than black. It will affect women
more than men and children
more than adults, making it sexist and agist.
are universal. The right to life is obviously the most important
right; this point is unfortunately missing from the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations, 1948),
presumably due to an ambiguity about the death penalty that remains to
this day. What is clear is that everyone has the right to life, rich or
poor, black or white,
adult or child, man or woman, guilty or innocent. Influential climate
deniers have the same right to life as the children currently
living in poverty in developing countries whose future lives could be
destroyed by climate change.
message has evidently not sunk in, because years after my controversial
anyone is talking about the right to life of a billion people. Since
2012, many have become more aware of the urgency of climate
change. But there is still precious little literature or
about long-term future death tolls, nor is there much willingness in
the academic community to address this issue. I experienced this when
trying to publish an article
on that topic in different relevant journals.
Why are people are not talking about the right to life of a
billion people? Perhaps they disagree with the following two
sentences? Every person in the
world, whether black or white, female or male, young or old, poor or
rich, guilty or innocent, has the same right to live. Even influential
climate deniers who indirectly kill millions of people by blocking
climate solutions have the same right to live.
From today's perspective, even the executions that followed the
Nuremburg trials in 1946 were not justified, although the Holocaust was
clearly the worst crime in history. The death penalty is
climate change a form of genocide? The short answer is no, but the
comparison is important. Climate change is even worse than genocide in
that it will probably cause hundreds or even thousands more deaths than
case. But it is not as bad as genocide in the sense that the main
actors (the influential
climate deniers) do not intend to kill anyone. They are merely
criminally negligent. From a human-rights perspective, there has never
been a worse case of criminal negligence. From my original text:
the GW deniers would point out straight away that they don't intend to
kill anyone. ... The GW deniers are simply of the opinion that the GW
scientists are wrong. ... [They are] enjoying their freedom of speech
and perhaps they sincerely believe what they are claiming. They can
certainly cite lots of evidence (you can find evidence for just about
anything if you look hard enough).
The only thing that could be worse than climate change, as it will
probably develop during the coming century, is
human extinction. Human extinction is possible (and increasingly
climate change gets
out of control,
that is, if global mean surface temperature starts to increase of its
due to climate feedbacks, with no help from human emissions. Which is a
good reason to wake people up with a scandalous statement.
What I am really "calling
I don't know how many media reported that I had "called for" the death
penalty for climate deniers. Both climate deniers and sensational media
had an interest in exaggerating my message. Some German-language media
the word Forderung
(demand). I guess they were desperate to sell
Unlike my 2012 text, the present text is "calling for"
something. First, the
International Criminal Court should identify and try the most
influential climate deniers. If found guilty of the charge of
indirectly causing millions of future deaths, they should be jailed for
life, with the following aims:
suppress climate-denial culture,
prevent further delays to the sustainable energy revolution, and
what is left of justice for untold millions of
future climate victims.
We don't have time
for a long, complex,
abstract, academic discussion about this. We can't wait until the end
civilization before realizing that the most influential climate deniers
are among the most guilty actors in all of human history, and finally
deciding to convict them. At that late stage, the legal profession (or
what is left of it) will have other things to worry about.
More generally, I am "calling for" the following:
the taboos and the "elephants the room". Start talking about the real
truth, and care about it. Honesty and caring are related to
each other. Both are in short supply.
everyone agrees that all people are equally valuable. Put this basic
principle of human rights into practice. The biggest
problems are those that affect the most people the most
that human lives are more important than money or jobs (employment),
focus on lives. Instead of
balancing present financial
costs of mitigation with future financial
costs of adaptation, balance present human
costs of decarbonization with future human
costs of climate change.
devote more time, energy, and money to bigger problems and less to
smaller. That is the best way to sustainably improve any
situation. Focusing on smaller problems and neglecting larger ones (as
often happens in
politics, the media, and private conversation) is a
recipe for disaster.
need more honesty, compassion, and political will. We need
to decide to
address the problem seriously, at last. Are we capable of making an
honest decision and sticking to it? If millions of individuals make the
the problem can be solved. Only then will the burning
of fossil fuels, the destruction of forest, and the production of meat
and concrete rapidly slow down and approach zero.
reduce all greenhouse-gas emissions in all sectors. Every
tonne of CO2 emitted today contributes to future suffering
About half of today's emissions are absorbed by plant life, on land and
in the oceans; the other half will stay in the atmosphere for
centuries, contributing to global warming.The
indirect killing of future
people has to stop, and it has to stop now. Not in ten
years or even
next year, but now. If I'm
"calling for" anything, that's it.
A solution that takes human
rights seriously will mean fast economic changes that
bring global economic turbulence. But nothing can be more turbulent
than what climate change will bring later this century. From that
viewpoint, these are reachable goals.
It's no longer a question
of research to reach them. We now understand the physics, chemistry,
biology, geology, technology, economics, psychology, and sociology of
climate change in
There are many kinds of climate denial. We are all climate deniers to
the extent that we are not talking directly about the fatal
consequences of our personal emissions. Hardly anyone is prepared to
talk openly about the future deaths that we are causing. The taboo
is almost universal. In that sense, almost everyone is a denier.
Many people think we only have to stop corporations and governments
from emitting. They should change the system so we can continue our
lives in the usual way. The problem will then be solved. Not true! The
global mean carbon footprint is 5 tonnes CO2 per year. To
reach sustainability, this must be halved. For global CO2 to
fall, emissions need to be reduced even more. This leaves us a with a
personal carbon budget of 2 tonnes CO2 per
year, which practically counts out flying, regular driving, and regular
Some people will object that aviation
represents only 2% of global emissions. That is a very misleading
the next few decades at least, the best way to reduce aviation
emissions will be to reduce aviation. The best way to do that is
through internationally harmonized taxation, but that is another issue.
has been growing steadily for decades and
now contributes at least 3% of global CO2.
aviation to global warming is at least twice that figure (i.e., more
than 6%) due to the effect of other greenhouse gases and their complex
interactions with the atmosphere.
a small proportion of all
people ever fly (less than 10%). For those people, flying represents a
large part of their carbon footprint--typically about half.
represents a relatively large proportion of a rich country's
contribution to global warming (e.g. 15% in the UK).
is steadily growing (5% per year globally), with no end in sight. There
is no realistic sustainable alternative. If other sources of CO2
are reduced drastically according to the Paris agreement, flying will
gradually approach 100% of global carbon budgets for limiting global
warming to 1.5°C or 2°C.
Now, if there were realistic sustainable alternatives to flying,
driving, and meat, we could use them and it would be ok. But at the
moment there aren't. We will be waiting for decades for these problems
to be solved technologically and scaled up so that large numbers of
people can take advantage of them. But emissions need to fall
The consequences are clear. On the one hand, governments and
corporations must urgently reduce emissions at all levels. On the other
hand, individuals must urgently reduce personal emissions. Both
strategies are necessary and important.
Incidentally, this is is not necessarily a moral or ethical statement.
It is merely a logical conclusion. If we want to get global warming
under control, this is what we have to do. If we don't, we don't.
But there is also a strong moral element. If we love our children, we
have to stop pretending this
problem does not exist. We have to address it
directly, and decide solve it. We have to admit that our emissions
are contributing to current and future premature deaths,
especially in poor
we need to be clear that our actions are informed and voluntary. We know that we are
contributing to climate change and biodiversity loss by flying,
driving, and eatig meat. We also know that
we can quite easily reduce our personal contribution, if we want to --
even if we
cannot eliminate it.
If I am "evil", it is not because of my 2012 text. It is because of my
lifelong carbon footprint.
The main way people in rich countries can reduce their
emissions is by not flying, driving, eating meat, or having children.
For these reasons, I don't own a car and mainly use a bicycle for
travel around town. I go to conferences and holidays on trains and
buses. I don't have any meat in my fridge at home, although I do eat
some (mainly chicken or fish). Please join me. It's
easier than you think. If you lose one or two
will gain more new ones. If you lose money, you will gain happiness.
You might also save money by not driving or flying.
I am also interested in the
political question of reducing birth rates and population growth both
in both richer and poorer countries. In richer countries, each
additional person adds an enormous amount of CO2
atmosphere during her or his life, which is a good reason to reduce
birth rates, no matter what they might be. In poorer countries,
birth rate is sometimes still far too high -- a problem that can be
solved by alleviating poverty and improving education for both girls
and boys. In both cases, the quality of life of future generations will
be promoted if birth rates fall.
I am not advocating "population control". Instead I
am saying: If you love children, don't have any. No one should ever be
penalized for having children. Every child is equally valuable, and
indeed that is the point. We cannot bring children into the world at
the same time as we are destroying their future. The best strategy to
reduce population growth in developing countries is to alleviate
poverty and improve education for girls and boys, but that is another
(very important) topic, and it does not change the fact that one of the
most effective actions against climate change that an individual in a
rich country can take right now is to avoid having children or
encouraging others to have children.
1990s and 2000s, I flew to and from
Australia every 1-2 years, from
Europe or North America. Flying presumably
represented about half of my
personal carbon footprint (that is probably still true for many
academics and business people). I had no idea at the time
that my travel was causing
future deaths, but it was. Every time a passenger jet flies to a
distant destination, a fraction of a future person is killed. The fuel
burned by a typical passenger jet on a few long-distance return
flights is enough to cause the death of one future person (more).
In those quasi-innocent bygone days, I was naively enjoying
traveling wherever I
wanted to or could afford. I really love to travel! Gradually, I
started to realise that flying could have serious consequences,
but I was not yet ready to face the truth, namely that it is causing
future deaths. Since about 2010, the fatal consequences of burning
large amounts of fossil fuels have been clear to me. It is probably
also clear to most of my academic colleagues, friends, and
relatives. Many of them are still flying wherever they want, or so it
seems, although they belong to the best-informed people.
In 2014, I decided never again to fly to an academic conference unless
invited. In late 2019, I decided never to fly again except in an
emergency. Given the fatal future consequences of emissions from
flying, one can argue that flying is only justified if necessary to
save lives. I have many dear family members and friends in
Australia, some of whom I may never see again -- although I am
considering taking the train from Europe to Shanghai, followed by
sailing ship, after I retire. But it is more important for those
relatives and friends (and everyone, everywhere) to
reduce the future impact of climate change.
Hardly anyone is prepared to make that kind of comparison, but it is
surely obvious and important. Here is another one: both my parents
died in the past few years, and losing them was obviously far more
serious than losing the privilege of flying.
to reduce global
If the value of a human life is our greatest value and the foundation
our value system (which hardly anyone will argue with), and if the
lives of two billion children in developing countries are really
threatened by climate change (which is obvious considering the
predicted consequences of climate change -- more),
then we must urgently do two things:
Close down all fossil fuel industries worldwide as soon as possible, AND
Reduce individual carbon footprints to below the sustainable level
of about 2 tonnes CO2 per person per year, also worldwide
(corresponding to the amount of CO2 being absorbed by
plant life on land and in the oceans).
In the absence of a miracle, no other
strategy beside points 1 and 2 (both of them) will work. That is true
regardless of progress in areas like carbon capture and storage, soil
carbon sequestration, geoengineering, carbon dioxide removal, solar
radiation management, and so on. These technologies simply cannot scale
up to the enormous dimensions that are required, and/or if they did the
environmental consequences would be prohibitive. Of course, we also
have to stop deforestation and promote
reforestation, urgently. But again the success of that strategy will
also be limited, so points 1 and 2 will be necessary regardless
of the degree of success.
Therefore, every one of us who understands this problem has no choice
but to start implementing both points immediately. For most people in
rich countries, that means:
A. Vote green or
equivalent and get involved in climate action, and
Stop flying, driving, eating meat, and having children (or
encouraging others to do so).
There is currently no
realistic alternative to the general direction of points A and B, just
is no alternative to 1 and 2. Of course we can discuss the details, and
of course every individual will have to find her or his solution. But
that is not the point. The point is that every person everywhere is
obliged by the unprecedented enormity of this global problem to reduce
their personal footprint to below 2 tonnes CO2 per person
per year as
soon as possible. I am unaware of any reasonable counterargument.
That being the case, everyone must implement both points, A and B,
without delay. We have no time to lose. Nothing has ever been more
Needless to say, I am powerless to tell other people what to do. I am
merely presenting a logical argument. I could turn my argument into a
plea and write "Please, please, for the sake of our children and future
generations, implement points A and B!!!" But I prefer to present facts
and arguments, and leave the politics to others.
The stakes have never been higher. We cannot afford to pretend that the
above arguments are incorrect and hope for the best, which at the
moment almost everyone is doing. The current behavior of the average
person on this issue is irrational in the extreme. If we wish to
demonstrate that we are thinking, caring people (Homo sapiens), and not some kind of
sophisticated lemmings, we have no choice but to urgently implement
points 1, 2,
A, and B. Anything else represents the worst imaginable
betrayal of young people and future generations.
Catholic condom ban
When writing my 2012 text, I looked for cases in the past few decades
in which the actions of one person might have caused a million deaths.
Apart from influential climate denial, I only found one: the Catholic
condom ban. The Rwandan genocide seemed much more shocking due to the
premeditated nature of the killing, but the number of deaths was below
The idea of "death penalty for the Pope" was obviously absurd. I
included it in my text only in passing, as an explanatory
counterexample. It exposed a
contradiction that is inherent
in the opinions of death-penalty supporters, many of whom are
Christians: if the death penalty is
appropriate for the most serious crimes, what are those crimes exactly?
Surely anyone who has indirectly caused the deaths of millions of
people (e.g. by not ending the Catholic condom ban in the 1980s) is a
Here is the argument in a nutshell:
my argument about climate denial, this is merely a logical statement.
It is intended to wake people up. I am not "calling for" anything.
HIV/AIDS has caused over 30 million premature deaths (and over 30
million are living with the disease today),
IF about 10% of those deaths (order-of-magnitude estimate) could have
been prevented if the Catholic church had withdrawn its condom ban in
the 1980s, following urgent advice from the medical profession and
international development organizations,
IF the death penalty were limited by global agreement to people who
cause a million deaths, and as a result all current death sentences in
all countries were commuted to life imprisonment, a development that
would be euphorically celebrated by all anti-death-penalty activists
worldwide including myself;
those few Catholic leaders who are or were primarily responsible for
maintaining the condom ban since the 1980s would become death-penalty
The discussion about Catholic pedophilia has made steady
progress, although it is surely not over yet. But there has
almost no mention of the human-rights
implications of the Catholic condom ban, without
which millions of
AIDS victims would still be alive today. Tragically, neither the church
nor the general public has found the courage to talk about this
openly and honestly. Denial is not the answer. The ban is presumably
still indirectly causing thousands of AIDS deaths every year. The Wikipedia
page on this topic is informative but biased, because so few
people have the courage to defend the rights of the victims.
is religious hypocrisy at his worst: preaching universal love while at
the same time indirectly causing massive suffering and death.
Christians should read their Bibles, which incidentally say nothing at
all about contraception but a lot about moral courage (more).
death penalty is another case of Christian hypocrisy that Jesus would
surely have exposed if he were here today. How can a modern Christian
death-penalty supporter, as countless millions of Americans are, when Christianity
is supposed to be about
universal love and forgiveness, and the death
penalty caused the world's greatest
tragedy from a Christian perspective, namely the death of Jesus? The
Old Testament contains many references to the death penalty, explaining
when it should be applied according to ancient laws and practices. But
the whole point of Christianity is that the teachings of Christ
challenged Old Testament law and exposed its hypocrisy, as a Christian
internet source explains:
New Testament does not have any specific teachings about capital
punishment. However, the Old Testament ideas of punishment became
secondary to Jesus' message of love and redemption. Both reward and
punishment are seen as properly taking place in eternity, rather than
in this life.
It's surely as simple as that? Incidentally, I may be atheist but I am
neither anti-religious nor anti-Catholic. On
the contrary, my best friends and colleagues tend to have an altruistic
orientation and for that reason have always included Christians. The
Western music that I study in my research and perform in my spare time
is a wonderful byproduct of Christian history. I acquired musical
skills by performing Christian music. Moreover, I am fascinated by the
richness and diversity of the world's religious rituals. Trying to
understand their psychology is one of my research areas.
recent years, Pope Francis has been defending the rights of the global
and opposing climate change at the highest level, for which he deserves
everyone's admiration and support. At the same time, he is failing to
introduce urgently needed reforms. Ending the condom ban is one. More
generally, all forms of discrimination, based for example on gender or
sexual orientation, should be ended, consistent with the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights. For those who believe the Bible contains
absolute truth, enough evidence can be found. Many
scriptures point toward gender
equality. While the Bible is unclear about homosexuality,
many passages oppose discrimination
of any kind.
I am unaware of anyone else who has estimated the number of deaths that
influential climate denier can cause. However, many writers have
approached the topic from
Jean Ziegler has argued that every child who dies of hunger is
murdered. While I have the greatest respect and admiration for his
courageous and inspiring contribution, I disagree with the use of the
word "murder" in this context. There is an important difference between
negligence, however extreme, and murder. (The special status of the
Holocaust by comparison to other massive crimes involves the
premeditated nature of the killing.) But Ziegler is right that most of
those dying children (and they are dying right now as I write and you
read this — what could be more horrific than that?) could
been saved if we in the rich countries had bothered in the past few
decades to create a fair global economic system. In the future, those
children will die because right now we are not bothering to stop global
warming. I guess an appropriate term for this extreme form of
negligence is “indirect killing”.
Philosopher John Nolt, author of an influential 2015 book on
environmental ethics, wrote a paper in 2011 entitled “How
Are the Average American's Greenhouse Gas Emissions?” in
calculated that the emissions of the average American today are killing
or seriously harming one or two future people. If that was not a
wake-up call for every rich or middle-class person in every rich or
almost-rich country, I don't know what is. But hardly anyone knows
about this very important piece of work. Nolt should be a household
In her book "Merchants of Doubt", Historian Naomi Oreskes brilliantly
documented the actions of past climate deniers. It will be a great day
in the history of law and justice when the main culprits are tried
according to the evidence that she and others have painstakingly
collected. If the trial is fair, they will presumably find themselves
behind bars for the rest of their lives. Oreskes should also be a
In the past few years, the frequency of news reports that consider the
present and future fatal consequences of climate change has been
rising. That is a promising development. In an article published in
September 2017, Mark Hertsgaard realized that “Climate
is literally killing us”. I like this article, but disagree
two points. First Hertsgaard uses the word
the climate deniers do not intend to kill anyone. Second, the number of
people who will die in the future as a result of today's
denialism is much higher than his implied estimates. We are talking
about hundreds of millions and possibly billions.
My favorite journalist is George Monbiot. A long time ago, in
a discussion transcribed and published in May 2007, he said:
We Don’t Deal with Climate Change We Condemn Hundreds of
of People to Death”. The capital letters mean the comment
The more people have the courage to talk about this problem directly,
the more it will be taken seriously. But we are still a long way from
considering the true human consequences of influential climate
denial. It seems that most people are in denial about that
— a form of meta-denial. We are living our lives as if this
not happening or as if we didn’t know about it. As if we were
passing year, humanity is inching closer to the ultimate cliff of
self-destruction and extinction. The probability of hyper-failure
rising with every year of missed opportunities.
It's frightening and sobering to think about just how big this
problem really is. It is on the top level of a hierarchy and the other
levels are something like this:
death penalty is
causing thousands of
premature deaths every year. That is profoundly and deeply shocking.
Every preventable death is
international arms trade is much worse. It is causing hundreds of
premature deaths every year. Where is
outcry about that? International arms sales should be universally
is worse again. It is causing about
premature deaths every year. Words can barely describe how bad that is,
but we live our lives as if it is not happening.
Most people are still
acting as if human extinction is impossible. Of those who realize
it is possible, many are now regarding it as inevitable. In fact,
human self-destruction is possible and possibly
imminent, but survival is still possible (although increasingly
unlikely). Therefore, the struggle for human survival is the most
important struggle ever.
self-destruction is a totally new level -- even more shocking than
poverty. It will involve billions
of deaths. We don't have a vocabulary for that at all, because it never
happened before, and when it happens it will never happen again.
Extinction, as they say, is forever.
Therefore, mitigating climate change should be
top priority for everyone everywhere.
In closing, allow me to repeat two main points.
We are talking about a
future victims of global warming are
today's children in developing countries. They really exist, right now.
They are not
"future generations", although of course future generations are also
important. The lives of a billion children living right now really will
be shortened by global
warming, which in plain English means that global warming will kill them, which
means our emissions are
killing them, which means we
are killing them. That
these claims follow logically from one another is obvious; the example
could be straight from a philosophy textbook. The shocking nature of
these statements changes nothing about their truth content (whether
they are true is independent of whether they are shocking). If
actively suppress such claims or statements, we are engaging in denial
(which also follows logically from the previous statements). But we
have known about these causal relationships for several decades, and
there has never been a good excuse for denying them.
This is the most
important issue in current politics.
If we assume that every human life has the same value, and apply risk
assessment theory and order-of-magnitude estimates to this problem in a
rational way, we see that global warming, upon which everything on this
planet depends, is probably more serious that all other
comparable problems of global proportions, such as for example the
wealth gap, the risk of nuclear
holocaust, the risk of a genetically
manipulated pandemic, loss of biodiversity and holocene
extinction (the earth's sixth mass extinction event, this
time caused by humans), or the implications of land
degradation for future food production.
We, the citizens of today's democratic rich countries, in
Western Europe, are living in a dream. We think we have high standards
of morality, and we are proud of those standards. We are
especially proud that in our countries the death penalty has been ended
forever. That is great progress,
of course, but it is only the beginning.
It is time for the legal profession, and everyone else, to realize that
humans need food and fresh water to survive,
and global warming will irreversibly reduce both for a large proportion
of the world's growing population. That is just one way in which
climate change will cut short human lives. We are looking at the
tragedy humanity has every experienced.
not too late to prevent this mega-catastrophe, but if we are not
careful, it soon will be. Will we look
back on the 2010s as the decade in which we missed the last opportunity
to save ourselves?
from selected emails
following texts were copied verbatim, with permission of the
authors, from emails that I received
during December 2012 and January 2013. I do not necessarily
with the details of these statements, even if they generally support my
argument regarding the death
penalty is an extreme view but I am
sympathetic. I was more surprised by how vituperative and ignorant some
people have been in response. Good on you for pointing out how research
is carried out, the motivation of scientists and the implications for
"I am always amazed how people, the so-called climate sceptics among
them, find it difficult to cope with doubts and uncertainties such as
those that you showed in your text. You gave expression to an important
moral dilemma: on one hand the refusal to kill, and the freedom of
expression, and on the other hand the fact that people make obviously
very wrong decisions that affect us all and that you want to stop. And
so they pounce on some words, take them out of context and suddenly you
seem to advocate a totalitarian view. Ah well..."
‘At any given moment
is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas
which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without
question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other,
but it is “not done” to say it, just as in
mid-Victorian times it was “not done” to mention
trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the
prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising
effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given
a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow
--- George Orwell, "Freedom of the Press", unprinted introduction to
Animal Farm, first printed, ed. Bernard Crick, Times Literary
Supplement, September 15, 1972: p. 1040."
am sure you know best, that you
haven't done your masterpiece with
this article, but your intentions were good and pure. Everybody, who
knows you, knows that you are a good and honest man. As your article
shows you are also passionate about the future of your children and of
whole the mankind."
"I saw the death
penalty as a metapher for 'this should have consequences', nothing
else…and there are no organizations on the world that caused
more pain, deaths and wars than religions. You might have read 'god is
not great'…I’m really
happy someone who a few people listen too has addressed at least one
very critical topic."
you for the interesting
article. It's a sad world where you can't
even make a logical argument any more..."
Apart from the excerpts
from emails, the opinions
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